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Spinning Russia

Spinning Russia

Its no secret that Moscow has an image problem. When Russian President Vladimir Putin makes headlines, its usually for jailing a businessman or cracking down on dissent. A 2003 poll commissioned by Putins government revealed the depth of the problem. The survey asked Americans to name the top 10 things they associated with Russia. The top four were communism, the KGB, snow, and the mafia. The sole positive associationRussian art and culturecame in dead last. A poll conducted in August on foreigners awareness of Russian brands did even worse. The only brands foreigners could think of were Kalashnikov rifles and Molotov cocktails.

The Kremlin is convinced the culprits responsible for this distorted view of their country are people like meforeign correspondents based in Moscow. Putin aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky said in 2001 that Russias outward image is … gloomier and uniformly darker compared with reality. To a great extent, Russias image in the world is created by foreign journalists who work in our country. Michael McFaul, a Russia scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says: Theres an incredible hostility to Moscow-based journalists [among Kremlin advisors and senior bureaucrats]. They believe Moscow correspondents have become captive to the Moscow liberal intelligentsia.

In this narrative, the Western media are excessively influenced by anti-Kremlin oligarchs, such as Vladimir Gusinsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars hiring Western public relations and lobbying firms. When former Kremlin Chief of Staff Aleksandr Voloshin was told of the Western medias negative reaction to Khodorkovskys arrest, he is reported to have said When Yukos money dries up, so will these reports.

Whether the Western media bias is real or not, the Russian government certainly thinks it is, and it has launched a PR campaign to improve its image in the eyes of the world. Why does this response come now, at a time when Russia needs the West less than at any time in the past 20 years? One can only assume that the campaign is in preparation for the G-8 summit in Russia next year, when, in McFauls words, 7,000 foreign journalists will descend on St. Petersburg looking for something to write about. Although oil-rich Russia may not need the Wests financial assistance anymore, Putin and his team still have an overriding desire to see Russia accepted at the top table of global affairs.

Bear Marketing

In late 2003, the Kremlin decided to make the state news agency, Novosti, its main instrument for image improvement. It booted upstairs the agencys previous chairman, and hired in his place Svetlana Mironyuka former senior public relations advisor to Gusinsky, one of the most PR-savvy of the old generation of Russian business tycoons. Mironyuk had great success selling Gusinsky to Western investors, partly by teaming up with Western PR firms. Mironyuk was given a large budget (the exact amount is undisclosed) and told to do for Russia what she had done for Gusinsky.

The Kremlin and Novosti are bypassing the pesky Moscow-based journalists with a two-pronged strategy. Soon, the news network will go global with its own recently launched English-language TV channel, Russia Today. With a staff of 300 journalists, including around 70 imported from abroad, the channel will offer global news from a Russian perspective. In addition, Novosti has hired some notably Kremlin-friendly foreign journalists to work for its own newswire service. It has even launched its own English-language magazine, Russia Profile, written by an in-house staff.

On a second front, Moscow last year inaugurated the Valdai Discussion Club, an annual meeting for foreign experts and foreign journalists invited to Russia on the Kremlins dime. Invitees meet and mingle with senior figures from the Russian political scene. They are even treated to a one-on-one session with President Putin himself, which lasted more than three hours last year and nearly as long this year. Moscow-based journalists are pointedly not on the invite list.

The success of these ventures in altering Russias image has so far been mixed. Russia Today is still waiting for licenses to broadcast globally, so its too early to make a definitive judgment of its quality or success. But already, it has become something of a joke among Moscow correspondents (to whom the channel is, after all, a recrimination). The Kremlin has spent $30 million setting it up and has attracted foreign journalists to Moscow with salaries starting at $60,000 a year. But the imported journalists are, in many cases, fresh out of journalism school, know not a word of Russian, and lack basic knowledge of Russian politics or history. For many of them, the experience is a bit of a laugh, a gap year at the Kremlins expense. There is already some tension between them and the Russian employees, who know 10 times as much about Russia, and are paid salaries half as big.

I recently watched some early screenings at the Russia Today offices, and they reminded me of a college radio station. On the 6 oclock news, the presenter started off by looking at the wrong camera. She spoke of riots in Iraq, and the screen showed pictures of a crowd of angry Muslims. The next story was about Iran trying to get nuclear power, and the screen showed the same angry crowd.

Many wonder if the channel will be independent from the Kremlin. I asked Novostis head of image improvement, Alexander Babinsky, if it would investigate original stories on, say, state corruption, and he replied: Imagine you hired a defense lawyer, and the first thing he did when you were in court was tell the jury what a monster you were, what a liar, how you only took a bath once a month, etc. Youd be pretty annoyed, wouldnt you? On the other hand, says Babinsky, if we just say how great the government is, then we will only have an audience of two people. That is the fine line the channel will have to walkbetween irritating the Kremlin, and boring its foreign audience.

The channels chief editor is 25-year-old former Kremlin pool reporter Margarita Simonian. She says she has the strength to stand up to any Kremlin pressure, but when I asked her to name Putins greatest flaw, she paused for a long time, and said, Its a huge country. When I asked her what she meant, the pause was so long and awkward that I felt sorry for her and changed the subject.

It looks from rehearsal screenings that the channel will avoid outright propaganda and pick up Kremlin-critical stories that are in general global circulation. But it remains to be seen whether the Western world is dying to watch global news from a Russian perspective, i.e. pictures bought from foreign news agencies, and presented by foreign students. The only reason to watch the channel would be for its original material on Russia. But the Russia stories Ive seen are banala documentary on Buddhist medicine, another on the Old Believer religious sect, and a third on tennis player Anastasia Myskina, shown on a continuous loop throughout the day.

Getting Elites on Board

Although its hard to imagine Russia Today finding a large audience, other parts of Novostis strategy make more sense, particularly the Valdai Club. This year, the group of 30 foreign experts and non-Moscow-based journalists traveled down the Volga River on a boat. Participants said they were impressed by how balanced the selection of speakers was at the eventit included such harsh critics of the Kremlin as liberal politician Irina Khakamada, as well as Kremlin advisors such as Sergei Markov. Professor Marshall Goldman of Harvard University said, It was bewildering how open the event was. It seemed to go against everything else that is happening in the country.

Mironyuk persuaded Kremlin heavyweights to meet the visitors, including Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, chief domestic spin doctor Vladislav Surkov, and Putin himself. It shows Mironyuks clout that she could arrange such a long meeting with Putin, says David Johnson of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information. The gamble of giving foreigners such access to the usually closed and secretive Kremlin has paid off. Putin in particular handled himself extremely well, fielding tough questions from Russia experts for more than two hours, without notes or advisors. Harvards Goldman says, I was overwhelmed by how in command of his information he was. You have to be impressed by the man. You just have to.

Other Novosti image-improvement initiatives have also garnered praise, such as cultural events it has organized in London and New York. These days, Putin hardly ever visits the West without being accompanied by a grand Russian art exhibition, often sponsored by Kremlin-friendly oligarchs.

Some dismiss the Novosti initiatives as blatant propaganda. But, in fact, they mirror what many rich countries do to improve cultural and diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. The aberration is not that Russia is trying its hand at public diplomacy, but that it had avoided it for so long. Its communication policy with the West was often inept, even as late as last year, during the Yukos saga and the Orange Revolution, when the Kremlin would too often retreat into stony silence, leaving it to pro-Kremlin foreign businessmen to try to make the case for its actions. British Petroleum, disturbed by the sudden cooling of relations between the EU and Russia, even set up a special department to improve communication between the two.

The general notion of improving Russias image in the world is worth applauding. Nonetheless, I think (or at least hope) its not the case that Moscow-based correspondents (including yours truly) are somehow prejudiced or grossly ill-informed about Russia. We do, after all, live there. It is a very cold country. It is to some extent run by the KGB. And bears do occasionally roam the streets, at least in the far north. If we give newspaper inches to anti-Kremlin analysts or oligarchs, it is perhaps because they at least are prepared to give us access. It is still, despite Novostis best efforts, extremely difficult to get interviews with government ministers or see behind the Kremlins 20-foot walls. Its still almost a national event (at least it is to Russia watchers) when a senior Kremlin figure gives a long interview, as they do perhaps two or three times a year. Surely, if Russias image is mainly created by Moscow-based correspondents, it is worth opening up the Kremlin a little more to foreign hacks?

Putin may well succeed in giving the West better vibes about Russia. But there is the danger of a double standard. Even as Novosti slowly opens up the Kremlin to foreign experts and journalists, Russias domestic media remain as tightly controlled as ever. Foreign experts and journalists may have been granted a three-hour, uncensored interview with Putin, but no Russian journalists were allowed access. The Kremlin, in other words, pays foreign audiences the respect of being relatively straight with them. When will it pay its domestic audience the same respect?