“European Meridian XXI” Online: COVID-19 Pandemic Influenced Significant Social Transformation
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On 15 June 2020 the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Brussels, with the support of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) and Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) RAS organized an online discussion with leading think tanks in Russia and Europe: “International cooperation and public diplomacy during the pandemic crisis: challenges, practices, trends” with participation of Fyodor LUKYANOV, Editor-in-chief of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine.


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2nd Forum “European Meridian XXI” was held in online format and brought together leading experts in the field of international relations, public diplomacy, social studies, migration, cultural projects. The speakers of the discussion was the representatives of leading European and Russian think tanks, research centres, universities, key national museums and cultural platforms.

More than 200 participants from 31 country of the world registered to participate in the event: Austria, Armenia, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Japan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malaysia,  Mexico, the Netherlands, Peru, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Sweden, Spain, Tajikistan, United Kingdom, United States, Uzbekistan.

The organisers have chosen following topics for discussion:

  • Public diplomacy as a means of strengthening solidarity between countries. Will it help to overcome mistrust?
  • Social changes in the era of the pandemic: Migration, distancing vs responsibility and solidarity
  • Digitization and cultural diversity. What kind of «remote» cultural product will remain in demand after the pandemic?

The discussion was moderated by Fyodor LUKYANOV, one of Russia’s major political scientists, professor-researcher at the Higher School of Economics and Editor-in-chief of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine. Even the time was very limited and the number of experts was large Fyodor Lukyanov perfectly moderated and asked questions and gave the comments on the topic. About solidarity he said “Solidarity now is primarily been discussed not between states but within societies. We see that many societies are being confronted with the significant problems inside. Russia is not an exception, but I must say that our experience in this regard was better than I expected. When we look at other countries, we see quite negative trends and it seems to me that solidarity inside will be much more important maybe in months or even years to come than solidarity between states, which can create completely different atmosphere for international cooperation.”

Mr Alexander TOKOVININ, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the Kingdom of Belgium addressed the audience with welcome speech, he underlined that «It is generally accepted that the pandemic and its economic and other consequences accelerate change and pose a lot of important questions, including in international relations. Searching for answers for these questions presents a tremendous challenge for the expert community. Now, as the structures of the established order are becoming more fluid, seems to be the time to suggest innovative ideas corresponding to the reality.

The threat of increasing turmoil and chaos in global affairs makes it logical to suggest that strengthening the realist politics would be the right trend to follow. In this regard I believe more serious thought should be given to restarting meaningful cooperation on the European continent in a way that would help to cope with the current crisis in its various dimensions.» 

Eleonora MITROFANOVA, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Head of the Federal Agency Rossotrudnichestvo 2017-2020 (Russia), one of the initiators of the Forum European Meridian greeted the participants of the discussion, she pointed out that “International cooperation in science, culture and education very unexpectedly has received completely new vectors of development with the beginning of the pandemic. It seemed to us that the pandemic would now interrupt work and planned projects, but on the contrary, there was an increase of the events. There has been a reorientation and shift towards online cooperation in the field of science, for example, digital platforms have been actively used or many institutions opened access to their data and publications.

International cooperation in the field of education has expanded in the context of the pandemic. In particular, UNESCO has announced that it will join forces with civil society and partners in a broad coalition on education. It will aim at supporting countries’ initiatives to increase the use of distance learning and to support children and youth as risk group in accessing education”.

The first expert speech was by Alexey GROMYKO, Director of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Russia). He noted that “When any society is hit very hard by any problems, drama, tragedy only collectively it is possible to overcome a problem. Collective action is something what is the foundation for a solution of any major challenges for our countries. And here public diplomacy plays a huge role.

Covid-19 gave us a chance to demonstrate if we are more than formalist local communities or nation states, if we have a sense of much broader solidarity, which by the way in not so distant past was called internationalism.

When the pandemic started, I thought it was bright opportunity for different nation-states to overcome at least some differences and not to use this drama for further information warfare.

We should become much more resilient and willing to use public diplomacy and a notion of solidarity than it has been practiced for so many years. Let’s hope that pandemic and some lessons that we can draw from pandemic still will make us become more careful in descending what is propaganda and what is solidarity.”

Sieglinde GSTÖHL, Director of Studies, Department of EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies, the College of Europe (Europe) commented the question of Mr Lukyanov about public diplomacy that there is no common definition but identified it as “Public diplomacy normally could be seen as governments or let’s also say European Union’s process of communicating with forms of publics in an attempt to create some understanding for their ideas, their institutions, their policies, their culture. This is also about building trust as was already said. Showing solidarity for example in the form of humanitarian aid can be part of it, humanitarian aid is supposed to be impartial, neutral and not discriminating.”

Pavel SHEVTSOV, Acting head of Rossotrudnichestvo, emphasized the role of the Federal Agency in organizing educational processes and ensuring access to higher education in Russia for foreign audiences, as well as promoting international cooperation among Russian regions with their foreign partners. He noted that these areas of cooperation had largely moved into online formats during the pandemic crisis, but had not lost momentum.

He noted that Rossotrudnichestvo pays very much attention to public diplomacy, which, like traditional diplomacy, is a serious tool for bringing countries together. In today’s reality, showing positive experiences can serve as a bridge between our peoples and nations. The pandemic teaches us many things, and the experience that emerged in its context will be carefully studied and actively applied in future work.

Caroline GALACTEROS, Founder and chairwoman of the Think Tank GEOPRAGMA (France) became the experts on the topic of public diplomacy in the crisis «Crises is always a tough moment but also an opportunity. We have seen probably for the first time high level of data sharing in scientific community. If we could create an early warning system between Europe, Russia and Eurasia just around our continent and in our continent that would be a good point.

Virtual culture is a big trend that will certainly become more and more developed, but is never the same as being in front of each other. We should not forget or underestimate human dimension.

With pandemic we experience the necessity of solidarity but not the reality. This pandemic had very important consequence, it has shown to everybody on earth practically that solidarity is not a world, individualism is not enough, because to stay alive for the first time you had really to make up your mind and to decide to be civic, to be protecting the others, to protect yourself. Directly speaking if you do not wear mask, distancing yourself from your friends, even husband or children, and certainly from your neighbours or anybody you could have risk for yourself. This is solidarity in act.» 

The topic of social shifts during the pandemic was revealed by Marco MARTINIELLO, Director of the Centre for Ethnic and Migration Studies, (Liège University — Belgium). He stressed the problems of migration during the pandemic, which had been forgotten for some time but had not been solved by themselves. He also highlighted the social and economic inequalities experienced by migrants, who were particularly affected by unemployment and they were unable to “enjoy” the benefits of confinement. Marco also noted an increase in prejudice against Asians, especially the Chinese during the pandemic crisis. Pandemic is testing for social and piece for living together in multicultural cities. New forms of solidarity appeared, some of them became symbolic as new urban rituals, in many European cities people were applauding at eight o’clock to support medical forces fighting the virus.

Irina SEMENENKO, Deputy Director, Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences (Russia). She analyzed the responsibility of states, societies and individuals in relation to the pandemic and the world at large, highlighted the issues of digital learning, the difference between inclusive identity and multiculturalism, the gap in life values and intergenerational approaches.

«It is important not to depend on the idea of sustainability as core value of development, but to focus on responsibility «. In this regard, Irina pointed out the need for a sensible approach to nature and economic development, the importance of developing intangible intellectual resources, the development of good governance, including the involvement of different segments of the societies, as well as the development of individual responsibility.  

Ivan TIMOFEEV, Director of Programs at the Russian International Affairs Council (Russia), spoke about Covid-19 as a trigger or a reason for great social transformation, stressed the impact of the pandemic on the elections, the development of forms of electronic voting, the increase of accumulated aggression manifested in protest movements, the escalation of U.S.-Chinese relations, problematic consequences for European integration etc.

Marc FRANCO, Advisor for cultural diplomacy at Centre for Fine Arts Brussels BOZAR, Senior Associate Fellow of Royal Institute for International Relations (Egmont Institute) (Belgium) considered that “Cultural diplomacy can do a number of things by making access to cultures of other people and way other people think in very important manner, accessible across the world and increase understanding.

It is important that it is not a monopoly of big institutions, we have to make an effort as policy makers and also as big institutions to involve smaller young innovative groups that show what is living now.”

Alexey LEBEDEV, Director of ANO «Russian Seasons» (Russia), provided expert contribution to the discussion of digitalization and online conversion of cultural spaces and events, he emphasized the scope of the audience watching online broadcasting, as well as the possibility of presenting not only major federal productions, but also regional venues. He also noted that the monetization of online cultural events is necessary, as the cultural sphere needs to be developed.

Henry SARDARYAN, Dean of the School of Governance and Politics at MGIMO-University of the Russian Foreign Ministry (Russia), and Alessandro MAZZOLA, Sociologist, Centre for Ethnic and Migration Studies (Liège University — Belgium) and Guildhall School (London — UK) also took part in the event.