“Dialogue of Civilizations”: Putin’s close associate Vladimir Yakunin wants to establish an alternative think tank in Berlin / Critics warn against Moscow “propaganda”.
By Lukas Wehnert
The job of a Denkfabrik, the clumsy translation of the Anglo-Saxon word think tank, is the hoarding of thoughts. In reality, these organisations employ a network of internal and external experts producing monographs, analysis and commentaries on various subjects. Sometimes they are able to determine the sovereignty over the interpretation of terms and arguments. The genre’s pioneer was Robert Somers Brooking (1850-1932) who in 1916, in Washington, D.C., founded the prototype: Institute for Government Research. Eleven years later it transformed into the Brookings Institution, today the most reputed think tank in the world.
To become, within a couple of years, part of the Top 20 of global think tanks is the ambitious objective of the youngest such institution in Germany, the Berlin based Research Institute “Dialogue of Civilizations” – in short DOC, the acronym of its English name. If that target will be achieved, it was definitely not on the cards. To the contrary. The German language media welcomed the institute with criticism, open derision and outright enmity. Stumbling block is its initiator and co-founder, the Russian Vladimir Yakunin, from 2001 to 2015 head of the Russian Railways, close long-time companion of President Vladimir Putin and a protagonist in the ongoing conflict with the Western world view.
This man is, for the largest part of the media, a red rag: an engineer specialized in missile technology, according to his own admission member of the secret service during more than 20 years, last rank captain-engineer, after 1985 diplomat at the Soviet, later Russian UN representation in New York, 1996 co-founder of the legendary cottage co-operative “Ozero” near St. Petersburg, from then on member of the inner Putin circle.
Since 2015 he devotes himself to philanthropic work, mainly in form of conservative, pro-religious foundations and organisations that he generously supports out of his own pockets. During his time as Railways boss he became a rich man. The fact that in Russia proximity to the head of state is supportive to acquisitiveness should not come as a surprise. Yakunin has to accept that, from a German or general Western perspective, this is hardly appreciated. Since he also expresses opinions that are de facto taboo among German intellectuals – the commitment to traditional understandings of sexual ethics and religion or criticism of the “universalism” of Western values – the reaction is as good as programmed.
Beside Yakunin, DOC co-founders are the Göttingen-based professor Peter Schulz and the former General Secretary of the European Council, the Austrian Walter Schwimmer. Among the VIP’s at the launch event in late June were the ex-CEO’s of the German Railways, Hartmut Mehdorn, and of the secret service BND, August Hanning, as well as Ronald Pofalla, Railways board member and head of the St. Petersburg Dialogue, and Matthias Platzek, head of the German-Russian Forum.
The institute’s history reaches back to before the new millennium. In 1998, upon an initiative of the Iranian president Mohammad Chatami, the UN general assembly declared 2001 as a “Year of Dialogue among Cultures”. After the 9/11 attack in New York, in a global political atmosphere that seemed to confirm Samuel Huntingtons’s predictions (“Clash of Cultures”, 1996), the general assembly passed the UN resolution “Global Agenda for a Dialogue between Cultures”.
Some months later the late Indian social scientist and entrepreneur Jagdish Chandra Kapur, the Russian Yakunin and Nicholas F. S. Papanicolaou, a U.S. entrepreneur of Greek origin, founded the “World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations” (WPF).
The WPF’s highlight has been, since 2002, the annual Rhodes Forum on the Greek island. It offers a platform to conservatively-minded scientists, activists and politicians from all over the world. The next Rhodes Forum end of September 2016 is titled “The Chaos of Multiplicity: An Urgent Call for Dialogue”. The prime ministers of Hungary and Slovakia, Victor Orban and Robert Fico, and the Czech president Milos Zeman are expected.
The subjects of the DOC and the Rhodes Forum are identical. It’s about relations between East and West, about social regression leading to “new barbarism”, about the “protection of the Human in humans”, and about global infrastructure and future economic models after the breakdown of present ones.
More than a few Western intellectuals depict the Rhodes Forum as a “fringe event” where scientists who didn’t find their place among mainstream colleagues discuss odd theories. But the U.S. citizen Alissa Jones Nelson, DOC senior editor in Berlin, warns not to underestimate the changes of the last 15 years.
The systemic crisis of the financial world, smouldering since 2008, the new self-awareness of the Chinese and the return of Russia as a financially weak but resource-rich Eurasian power – all combined leads to a situation where a single world region can no longer dictate the rules of the game. The phenomenon of the Islamic state, the migration crisis around the Mediterranean and the come-back of national identities demonstrate how quickly the dreams of the end of history, of a “global village” and of the worldwide rule of Western reason disappear.
All the more urgent is the dialogue of civilizations and cultures in East and West, South and East, as the DOC research director of Chinese origin, Chen Jiahong, stresses. During a recent press briefing she provided an introduction into the future DOC activities. The main criteria: intellectual standards, independence of thought, and international significance.
A distinctive feature seems to be the fact that the DOC, other than the majority of international think tanks, isn’t rooted in the Western or Anglo-Saxon tradition of thought. Not without reason it was Chinese, Indians and Iranians who in one form or the other contributed to the DOC’s formation. In the light of the European demise, it is the very old world cultures who set out to determine what, at the end of globalization, the future of the planet will be. Talking to DOC representatives, the alleged Moscow agenda quickly melts down to a pipe dream, or a result of exaggerated russophobia. And indeed, the research subjects Chen presents have hardly anything to do with Russia.
Senior editor Jones Nelson, who has been living in Berlin for some years, explains why that very city was selected. Berlin, she says, is a “multicultural laboratory” and one of intercultural dialogue – whatever the outcome will be. There is hardly a better location for an organisation that sees itself as an interface of civilizations. Germany as a European country between East and West has all the ideal preconditions. The choice of location, she adds, also demonstrates the intention to serve as a platform for Western and non-Western approaches alike. The fact that Berlin is a German town had played the least important role. Jones Nelson’s colleague Chen confirms that the emphasis is on mobilizing intellectual forces for a common search for common solutions for common problems.
The DOC team is fully aware that their theoretical approach will be criticized, by the so-called universalists, as culture-relativistic. Both positions are united in deep struggle. At its core, the dispute is about whether human values are shaped by cultural affiliation or whether the values of Western enlightenment are universally valid, that is for all people alike. Some of the sharp reactions after the launch might also have been provoked by the self-confidence of the DOC founders who establish their unorthodox intellectual approach right in one of the centres of the Western world. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung: “Russian propaganda: Putin’s fight for Berlin”. And Karl Schlögel wrote in Die Welt, Putin, “with the help of a German think tank, carries the anti-Western propaganda war to a head”. Maybe, at the end of the day, the scorn was not so much directed against politicians in Moscow but against a competing world view.
Chen and Jones Nelson both underscore the relevance and legitimacy of that very discourse. For them, it is urgently required that exponents of traditional and modern models of society become engaged at eye level, focussing on a common strategy to deal with the results of globalization. That, they say, is DOC’s objective. An additional focus is the understanding and resolving of global conflicts. In this respect the institute acts as a hermeneutical mediator, focussing on the understanding and interpretation of different narratives. In autumn 2016 the DOC will move to its own office and event space nearby the Gendarmenmarkt. Starting then, and besides the scientific and publishing work, a lot of event activities will get under way.