On September 4-7, 2019, a delegation of young leaders from the United States was in Vladivostok, Russia, attending the 5th annual Eastern Economic Forum. The trip was organized through RACI's Global Russia Study Tour Program in collaboration with the Friends for Leadership Program of the Roscongress Foundation.
Established in 2015 to support the economic development of the Russian Far East and to expand international cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region, the Eastern Economic Forum has served as an important platform for face-to-face discussions among politicians, business executives and expert on issues of regional integration and global challenges.
The U.S. young leaders' delegation was comprised of emerging professionals in economics and applied mathematics, public policy, international affairs and entrepreneurship from Harvard University, Princeton University, and the University of Washington.
Throughout the program, participants attended multiple discussion panels, business lunches and a sat down for a series of private meetings with high-profile guests and experts, including:
- Maria Zakharova, Spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs;
- Natalia Schneider, Vice President for Government Relations at the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia;
- Igor Sorokin, Government Relations Director at the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia;
- Mark Dudley, Regional Director for InterPacific Aviation and Marketing;
- Aleksandr Kondrashin, the CEO of the Yakutia Agency for Investment Promotion and Export Support;
- Louis Crishock, Consul General of the United States in Vladivostok;
- Artem Lukin, Deputy Director for Research at the School of Regional and International Studies of the Far Eastern Federal University.
The main takeaways revealed by these discussions are as follows:
1. Russia remains very open to Western guests and cautiously optimistic about the future of West-Russia relations. In talking about the U.S., Russians continuously stress that they are prepared for constructive and equal dialogue on a wide range of issues. Unfortunately, the mood in Washington is still set against any meaningful engagement with Moscow.
2. U.S.-Russia citizen diplomacy efforts and cultural exchanges are strongly encouraged by officials from both sides. Programs that enable Americans to visit and explore Russia for educational purposes are consistently supported by the Russian Foreign Ministry through the quick and oftentimes cost-free issuance of visas. The situation is far more complicated on the U.S. side, where the visa process can take many months and the rate of denials is significantly higher. The U.S. visa problems is also the obstacle keeping RACI from taking similar groups of young leaders from Russia to the United States.
3. While Russia has adapted to the U.S. sanctions, their negative impact on the economy is not disputed. In particular, sanctions are said to have curbed some foreign enthusiasm for investing in large-scale projects in the Russian Far East. Generally, however, interest in direct investment in Russia has been growing, including among U.S. businesses. Cooperation between Russian and U.S. business circles is developing better than expected, given the circumstances. The investment rate is growing slowly, and according to AmCham's estimates, the total accumulated direct investment by American companies in Russia exceeds $85 billion.
4. Russia has had an image problem long before the sanctions were introduced. As a result, despite being one of the most highly-ranked countries in terms of the quantity and diversity of UNESCO World Heritage sites, natural parks, rare animals and wildlife, the Russian Far East, for instance, remains a blank spot on the traveller's map. Additional rigorous efforts in branding and marketing could help make Russia a more desired destination for tourists from North America.