Of all countries that "matter" to the United States, Russia is perhaps the only one that doesn't systematically lobby its interests in Washington.
This is, of course, not to say that American PR agencies and lobbyist firms have never touched "Russian" dollars. Russian companies with significant presence in the U.S. market — Gazprom, Lukoil, and Severstal – routinely use lobbyists to protect and advance their corporate interests. APCO Worldwide has become famous for manufacturing the image of YUKOS as the "most open and transparent Russia company." Later, APCO spin doctors helped to propel Mikhail Khodorkovsky, charged with tax evasion, into the heights of political martyrdom. In another incarnation of lobbying feats, the owner of Basic Element, Oleg Deripaska, has reportedly paid $560,000 to a law firm employing former Senate majority leader, Bob Dole, to get an entry visa to the U.S. (after running into some problems with U.S. immigration officials).
Yet when saying that there is no Russian (pro-Russian) lobby in America, one means that there is no Russian-American constituency in the U.S. that would politically support Russia, promote its interests in Washington, and work systematically on improving U.S.-Russian relations.
The grass-root potential for creating such a lobby is certainly there: different estimates put the number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union living in the U.S. at between 3 and 6 million (including illegal immigrants). About 30% of them reportedly reside in New York State, with other states with a significant Russian presence being California, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.
Besides, by and large, Russian-Americans enjoy significant level of economic prosperity — due, undoubtedly, to the fact that they are usually highly educated: according to some estimates, up to 80% of Russian immigrants hold college degrees.
In New York City, where an estimated 1 million residents speak Russian (the fourth most spoken language after English, Spanish, and Chinese ), Russian-speaking voters are gradually becoming a voting bloc to be reckoned with. Reflecting this trend, a new New York state law requires that future election material be translated into Russian (in addition to Spanish, Chinese and Korean).
New York City is also the home base for Alec Brook-Krasny, the first Soviet Union-born member of New York State Assembly — and believed to be the highest-ranked elected Russian-speaking politician in the country.
Yet New York State appears to be an exception since in no other state has the clout of Russian-speaking voters reached a critical mass, forcing politicians to take them seriously. (My attempts, in 2006, to persuade the Kerry Healey campaign for Massachusetts governor to spend more time in Russian-speaking communities in Boston produced no more than a few polite nods). It's safe to say that no candidate for national office ever needed to worry about losing an election because he or she didn't support warmer relations with Russia.
Far from that, in the absence of a pro-Russian lobby, no U.S. public figure ever paid a price for signing an anti-Russian letter or voting for a Russia-bashing resolution – or for simply making a gratuitous derogatory comment about Russia. As repeatedly discussed in this space, misinformed and ill-spirited Russia-related publications are a standard fixture of American media. Can anyone imagine an aspiring American politician or a sane journalist with a habit of casually dropping unsubstantiated critical remarks about Israel, for example?
The inability of U.S. Russian diaspora to create a functional lobby can be at least partly explained by the almost subconscious disdain of many Russian-Americans – very much like their friends and relatives back "at home" — for public politics. Although cultural and religious organizations bringing together Russian-speaking Americans are relatively common, they clearly shun away from activities characterizing bona fide ethnic lobbies. For example, one of the most reputable Russian cultural organizations in the U.S., the American Association of Russian Language, Culture and Education (AARCE), draws a very clear line by describing its mission as "representing and serving the American Russian-speaking community in the areas of culture, education, arts, sports, community and youth issues…"
The notable exception is Congress of Russian Americans (CRA), an organization founded in 1973 by "U.S. citizens and permanent residents of a Russian descent who are non-Communist in their beliefs [and whose] personal and social lives…are firmly rooted in religious Christian Orthodox values…" One of the CRA mission statements defines its goal as "[F]ighting post Cold War Russophobia and restoring friendly relations between the U.S. and Russia."
Facing much better funded Eastern European and Baltic ethnic lobbies, CRA put up a good fight against the notorious Captive Nations resolution, which upon adoption by U.S. Congress, in 1959, declared the third week of July as the annual U.S. Captive Nations Week. The goal of the resolution was supposed to raise public awareness of the suffering of nations ruled by Communist and other non-democratic regimes. CRA members objected to the resolution because of the use of words "Russian Communism" and "Communist Russia" in its text. CRA argued that the Russian people – similar to other "captive nations" — were also the victims of the oppressive Communist regime.
CRA must also be credited with pressing the U.S. Congress to adopt the House Resolution 555 that designated November 7, 1988 as a "Memorial Day for the Victims of Communism" and expressed solidarity with all "captive" people of the U.S.S.R, including Russians.
Although in 1986, CRA established a Washington Office (WO), it clearly stated that WO was "[N]ot a lobbying organization." Instead, the professed goals of the WO were defined as "gathering and disseminating information and representing the Russian-American community." Whatever the role CRA foresees for itself in the future, it is clear that at the moment, it has no organizational or financial resources to perform activities of a de facto pro-Russian lobby.
In addition to political passivity of Russian-speaking Americans, another major roadblock to creating the "Russian" version of AIPAC or Armenian Assembly of America, is the ideological heterogeneity of Russian diaspora. A century-old Jewish emigration from Russia and the Soviet Union has resulted in the Russian-American community being approximately 70 percent Jewish. (And although members of this community may hold "non-Communist beliefs" professed by members of CRA, they don't necessarily share their "religious Christian Orthodox values").
Very little solid research has been done on Russian-speaking community in the U.S., but a number of common assumptions are being frequently made. It's generally believed that the majority of Russian-speaking immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s came as political refugees with strong anti-Soviet and anti-Communist views. Some members of this particular "immigration wave" turned professional critics of Russia's political regime and leadership. American Enterprise Institute's Leon Aron spings to mind as an example.
The collapse of Communism and introduction of democratic reforms in Russia have had a profound effect on the way many Russian-Americans now perceive their homeland. Some of them became advocates of a less confrontational approach towards Russia. Dimitri Simes, the president of The Nixon Center and publisher of The National Interest, is a leading proponent of a "realistic" (i.e. more pragmatic) course in U.S.-Russia relations. Former Soviet dissident (and currently the president of American University in Moscow), Edward Lozansky, began organizing the World Russian Forums, a venue in which American and Russian experts can exchange their views on the most pressing problems facing the two countries.
In contrast to political refugees of earlier generations, Russian-speaking immigrants of the 1990s and 2000s came to the U.S. mostly for "economic" reasons, i.e. seeking employment opportunities. Many of them have retained Russian citizenship and, along with it, a keen interest in current events in Russia. Many recent additions to Russian diaspora in the U.S. cultivate close ties with Russian businesses and thus are naturally interested in developing strong economic relations between Russia and the U.S. These people represent a potential grass-root basis a future pro-Russian lobby in America can be built upon.
But there is a need for a trigger. Edward Lozansky believes that the initial push should come from the Russian government. Professional lobbyists must be hired first to begin systematically working with members of Congress — exactly as they do for other foreign governments. The signs that Russia has finally become serious in lobbying its interests in Washington would encourage on-the-ground efforts to establish politically significant pro-Russian organizations, a process that will inevitably take years to produce the first meaningful results.
Moscow is wrong in expecting that any improvements in U.S.-Russia relations will happen by themselves or will be ushered solely by the Obama–Medvedev summits (or by actions of largely bureaucratic "bilateral commissions" the two presidents have established). The fate of the uber-irritant in the U.S.-Russia relations, the notorious Jackson-Vanik amendment – as well as of the highly desirable by Russia "123 Agreement" — will be decided in U.S. Congress. It's here where ethnic lobbies have traditionally been the most successful, and it's here, where currently, Russia has no leverage. Waiting for the White House to do the job of the non-existing pro-Russian lobby, Russia only shows that, unfortunately, it doesn't understand the rules Washington is playing by.
It's time for Russia to join the club of more than 100 countries who actively lobby their interests in America.