Russian officials have strongly endorsed efforts to improve the country’s tarnished international reputation. On February 21, Oleg Morozov, first deputy speaker of the State Duma, declared, “A negative image of Russia entails a lack of confidence in us, in our political system, in our economy, thus limiting investments in Russia.”
Image ‘is a very important element of our foreign policy” and Russia should invest in this area, Morozov argued. Furthermore, he suggested relying on Soviet experience in promoting the country’s positive image. “This work was well done in the Soviet Union” and it brought good results, Morozov said. Although he conceded that Soviet propaganda misrepresented the actual state of domestic affairs, he still insisted, “Instruments to achieve this goal remained unchanged.” Morozov suggested revamping these publicity tools to fit Russia’s current realities (Interfax, February 21).
The Kremlin is already spending millions of dollars on the English-language satellite news channel “Russia Today.” Moscow also funds Russian Trends, a monthly supplement in the Washington Post and several other Western papers designed to project the “right” image of Russia.
Furthermore, in the state’s latest effort to reach out to English speakers, state news agency RIA-Novosti is financing a remake of the Moscow News, due in March 2007. While RIA-Novosti created Russia Today with the aim of presenting the government’s view on news about Russia, Moscow News would have no obligation to run reports about the Kremlin, RIA-Novosti deputy editor Leonid Burmistrov explained (Moscow Times, February 21). Notably, before its launch in late 2005, Russia Today’s executives insisted that the channel should have an independent editorial policy.
In the meantime, Russia’s media maneuverings have been seen as part of a broader campaign to improve the country’s image in the West. On the eve of the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg last summer, Moscow reportedly paid the U.S. PR firm Ketchum $15 million, presumably to counter critical media coverage of Russian affairs.
However, Western public relations specialists had to work hard to earn their millions, as many Russian foreign policy moves were criticized. In particular, Russia’s standoff with Georgia was widely seen as an attempt to punish Tbilisi for its pro-Western orientation. Russia’s insistence on ties with the Iranian regime and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, as well as contacts with the Palestinian group Hamas, also did little to boost Russia’s popularity in the West.
Russia’s economic policies hardly fared better internationally. The recent Sakhalin oil-exploration dispute was widely seen as an indication that the Russian government seeks to boost its already strong clout in the energy sector at the expense of foreign investors. Natural gas monopoly Gazprom was accused of energy blackmail when it was rumored to be bidding for overseas expansion.
Last month Gazprom disclosed that it was negotiating an $11 million, three-year public-relations contract with a consortium of Western PR firms. These pricy media specialists are needed to counter the critical Western media coverage of recent Gazprom pricing disputes with Belarus and Ukraine.
In January 2007 Moscow came up with more concrete moves to win hearts and minds in the West. The Kremlin dispatched a much larger-than-usual delegation, led by First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, to the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.
However, so far Russian attempts to counter critical Western media coverage have lacked substance and generated limited results. Arguments by Russia’s critics can best be summed up in a Russian proverb that translates roughly as “Don’t blame the mirror if your face is crooked.” The Kremlin’s apparent recognition of publicity missteps and its efforts to shake off its negative image appeared to come as a reminder of the simple fact that public relations woes tend to reflect policy problems.
Moscow is also working to improve its image through diplomatic channels. On February 20, Russian Foreign Ministry officials, headed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, also discussed publicity issues. The meeting decided that the Russian Center for International Scientific and Cultural Cooperation (Roszarubezhcenter) should promote the “objective perception of Russia as a dynamically developing democratic state with a socially oriented market economy.” The meeting also suggested boosting humanitarian ties with members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, adding that in order to achieve this goal, the Agency had recently opened offices in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan (RIA-Novosti, February 20). Roszarubezhcenter, now part of the Foreign Ministry, was a quasi-independent agency during the Soviet era, known as the Union of the Soviet Societies of Friendship.
In the meantime, the Kremlin’s PR efforts are being imitated in other former Soviet capitals. Earlier this month, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry formed a new committee on international information aimed at improving the country’s image. The new committee is to monitor foreign media and work to create a positive international image for the country, according to ministry spokesman Ilyas Omarov (Interfax, February 12).