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Russia Profile’s Weekly Experts’ Panel: Russia’s image in the world
Untimely Thoughts ^ | 12/16/2005 | Peter Lavelle

Posted on 12/31/2005 5:27:24 PM PST by GarySpFc

Contributors: Andrei Tsygankov, Dale Herspring, Vlad Ivanenko, Ira Straus, Eric Kraus, William Dunkerley, Donald Jensen, and Edward Lozansky

Peter Lavelle: On Saturday, “Russia Today” television started broadcasting what it calls a “Russian perspective” on world events. When the establishment of the station was announced last summer, it also claimed that part of its mission was to “improve Russia’s image” in the world.

Also related to Russia’s “image” in the world was the recent announcement that former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has agreed to head the Northern European Gas Pipeline consortium’s council of shareholders on behalf of the majority shareholder in the project – state-owned energy giant Gazprom. At the time of writing, it has been rumored but not yet confirmed that former U.S. Secretary of Commerce – and close personal friend of President George W. Bush – Donald Evans has agreed to become chairman of the board of state-owned Rosneft.

What is Russia’s image in the world? What is a “Russian perspective” on the news? And what, if anything, can a television station and a small number of well-known foreigners involved in high level jobs in Russian businesses do to change perceptions of Russia?

I don’t believe that Russia has an image problem, but Russia’s ruling elite certainly has problems presenting the country to the world. Russia’s politicians and some of its appointed spin-doctors are remarkably defensive when “explaining” Russia. More times than not when replying to negative media coverage, these same individuals simply resort to the claim that others apply double standards when dealing with Russia. This of course may sometimes be the case, but in the absence of a more sophisticated and readily understood presentation of Russia’s politics on the part of its elite, it is no wonder that the Western media is more than willing to listen to the Kremlin’s critics who can “speak” to Western audiences.

Instead of an image problem, Russia has a presentation problem.

Andrei Tsygankov, professor of international relations, San Francisco State University:

I would differentiate between Russia’s perception by Western elites and by the general public. Many of the former tend to see Russia as not up to Western liberal-democratic standards at best, and barbaric at worst. The problem with the general public is different. People are often poorly informed about the country that “no longer matters” after the end of the Cold War, and Russia’s problem here is a lack of visibility, rather than lack of a favorable image. In the absence of aggressive promotion of a positive image, the Western public either feeds off the ethnocentric mainstream media or, more commonly, mobilizes the old memories formed by aggressive cold war propaganda. Such memories are not attractive. For instance, a 2003 poll revealed that most Americans continue to associate Russia with communism, the KGB, cold weather, and organized crime.

What might be a strategy of responding to this situation? In what manner should Russia’s news be presented? I think that such a presentation must be driven by Russia’s local concerns, and it must be tailored for an open-minded Western audience. Russia’s opinion polls will quickly reveal, for example, that no more than 5 percent of the population view democracy and free media as the most important political objectives for Russia today. Most people worry about poverty, security, crime, and the quality of social services. Russia’s news should, first and foremost, reflect the concerns of the majority of Russians, both those who continue to vote, despite all the odds, and those who, out of desperation, gave up on any form of public participation. Without seriously addressing these concerns, democratization and neo-liberal reforms pushed on Russia by Western media will make little sense.

Rather than fighting those who will never agree to take Russia’s concerns seriously, those who control how Russia is seen abroad must constantly keep in mind those who lack knowledge, but are curious enough to find out, and are able to understand the other side. They exist, and are not a small minority. As with other elites across the world, in the West, there are two types: those who are driven by stereotypes, and those who are relatively open-minded. To satisfy the latter, Russia’s news must be informative in presenting the local side of a story. Given the ethnocentric stereotypes often propagated by the most powerful civilization on earth, this task is far from trivial. It would certainly take skills and imagination to argue the case persuasively with facts and names at hand. It is absolutely essential not to get defensive or engage in conspiracy theories, since these practices will only worsen the already problematic image of Russia abroad and alienate the open-minded audience.

Dale Herspring, professor of political science, Kansas State University:

I find myself disagreeing with the thrust of Peter Lavelle’s question. The fact is that a good proportion of people in the West still think of Russia in terms of the USSR, and the recent spate of articles about the amendments to the law on NGOs and other steps backward has not helped. I don’t know how good this new TV effort will be – or whether or not it will become a new form of Agitprop – but if it is done in a sophisticated fashion it could only help, provided it can get itself looked at or used by the major Western television networks.

Moscow’s biggest problem is the superficial knowledge of most of the Western journalists who report on things Russian. And to a large degree, it is not their fault. Consider what they have to report on: Day 1 -the arts, Day 2 - agriculture, Day 3, NGOs, Day 4, problems in the military, Day 5, Russian-US relations, etc. Second, their knowledge of Russia is necessarily only an inch deep because they spend two or three years in Moscow, and then are transferred. This is the way it has been for the thirty years I have been involved in studying Russia, and I see little chance that it will change any time soon.

Finally, as concerns the foreign elites getting involved in Russian business, I suspect this will only help in dealing with Western elites. But I can’t understand how this is supposed to translate into a better image for Russia. Presentation will inevitably help, but I can’t believe that adding Madison Avenue to Putin’s external media department is going to change things in the near future.

Vlad Ivanenko, independent scholar and consultant on Russian economics, Ottawa:

Stronger competition is unconditionally beneficial for a consumer. Thus, consumers of news coverage can only applaud the entry of a new supplier – Russia Today TV. If the channel fails to attract a significant audience, it is the owner who pays the bill, but if it does well, it is the competitors who lose their share of the market. Predictably, they have expressed their dissatisfaction by pouring scorn on the helpless entrant.

The owner, the Russian government in this case, appears to understand the rules of the game. Recently, it has made another investment in improving Russian image. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has agreed to head a subsidiary of Gazprom. This move has prompted outrage from many Western observers who assert that it is unethical for a former high-ranking official of a democratic country to accept a job paid for by the “authoritarian” Russian government. Indeed, these two things do not square well, but Schroeder is a seasoned politician who obviously knows how to uphold his public standing. While the emotional wave of indignation will recede in the near future, this appointment sends a clear message to the Western corporate community: it is safer to do business with Russia.

The old adage says that nothing is so damaging to ones’ reputation as one’s own misdeeds, and this is especially true when dealing with the Russian bureaucracy. Russian officials often look ignorant, bossy or dodgy dealing with journalists, but this behavior is only a natural result of their environment. The lack of public oversight in this country coupled with the strong bureaucratic dependency on the superior implies that being rude in public has no consequences, but if a bureaucrat seems to disrespect his boss, it may cost him his job. Thus, the rule-of-thumb is that it is better to overplay the role of a fierce defender of “national pride” than to establish a rapport with an irrelevant foreign public. But this bureaucratic standard would become obsolete if the Russian government were to start caring about its reputation abroad in earnest. The logic of the situation implies that Russia Today TV should turn into the strongest critic of misdeeds conducted by bureaucrats in this country, or it will fail to establish its authority abroad.

Ira Straus, U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO:

There has been a somewhat sterile debate between those, whom we might call Putinists, who say Russia has an image problem and should answer with PR image-enhancing activities, and those, whom we might call anti-Putinists, who say the Putin regime has brought negative foreign reaction upon itself and no PR will help. Both sides are missing essential realities.

It is indeed true, as Putin’s critics say, that many of his actions have induced a negative reaction from the rest of the world for good reasons and in these situations, a PR solution is simply a mirage. Other actions have induced negative reactions because of misunderstanding and knee-jerk responses, and for these, better presentation and PR could indeed help. Much of Russia’s negative image antedated Putin; the anti-Putinists fail to comprehend the fact that there really is a fair amount of Russia-bashing, which will go on no matter who is sitting in the Kremlin. For this, the moral responsibility falls neither on Putin’s policies nor on Russian PR but on the West itself.

While the image problem is not all Russia’s fault, Russia has to deal with it. PR or better presentation is only a limited part of the answer. Russian diplomacy is another part. So is Russian domestic policy, which will make a convincing show of Russia’s progress down a democratic path only if it is actually true. There is room for a correction of Western exaggerations and misconceptions about Putin’s authoritarianism, but also considerable room for correction by Putin of his authoritarianism. And then there is the matter of learning to make the complaints about double standards in an intelligent manner without denying the validity of agreed international norms, without a demagogic manipulation of facts or a reverse double standard.

On the Western side, it would be welcome to see stronger public leadership by Western governing elites, who need to communicate to their public an honest view of realities in Russia – not “the truth about Russia” understood as the sum total of negative things that can be said, but something a lot better digested than that. And they need to communicate a considered view to their own media about whether media coverage is really doing the public and the government a service by giving free rein to Russia-bashing, which is often unrestrained by considerations of balance or accuracy. Western governments have an interest in maintaining (or rebuilding) a constructive long-term engagement policy toward Russia.

The media themselves bear considerable responsibility in this regard and ought to reassess their role. The Russia-bashers may often feel that they are serving their countries, since during the Cold War it was true that Soviet-bashing in the media was a form of patriotic flag waving. But Russia is no longer the enemy –in fact it is mostly a friend – and there are other very real enemies that we could have dealt with better if we had listened to Russia as a friend. This is something the media and others – NGOs, think tanks – have yet to grasp fully. They continue to present a “patriotic” bias against Russia as the opposite of the patriotic interest of the West. If they cannot figure out where their passions lie in this era, it is better for them to try simply to report dispassionately

Finally, there is the structural aspect of international relations. A little over a century ago, a British proponent of the emerging Anglo-American rapprochement said that what the two countries seemed to need, in order really to put aside their century of enmity, was to fight a joint little war against some joint enemy. This doesn’t look very wise in retrospect, after a century of war. War is never a safe thing, and should not be taken on for manipulative diplomatic purposes. Nevertheless, when we do have a war on our hands, such as the ongoing “war” on terrorism, it is irresponsible of statesmen to fail to use it for the purposes of deepening the diplomatic reconciliations that are underway. Thus far, the West and Russia have failed to use this war sufficiently for building amity with one another, with the sole exception of the fighting phase of the war in Afghanistan. Greater diplomatic skill is needed for this, but also political will at the top levels.

Membership in a visible joint alliance could be a consolidating factor in mutual positive image-making when fighting a war against a common enemy. This means moving further with the institutionalization of an alliance between Russia and the West, possible Russian inclusion in NATO and publicly applauding the cooperation that is going on in the struggle against terrorist infrastructures. Russian membership in NATO, while farther off today than it was three years ago, would do important things not only for Russia’s image in the West but for consolidating Russia’s image in Russia itself as a country whose destiny lies in the West and that can do well for itself by embracing that destiny.

Eric Kraus, chief strategist, Sovlink Securities, Moscow:

We live in an era of “spin” and the Kremlin spin-doctors are rank amateurs at the art. The West DOES apply double (and triple, and quadruple...) standards to Russia. Russian terrorists become “freedom fighters,” murderous oligarchs suddenly become democrats, while Russia's move to seize control of her own mineral resources was adjudged almost as theft in Washington – as in, how did our oil get under your tundra?

More generally, the Right, nostalgic for the old certitudes of the Cold War hates Russia for failing to behave like a defeated power; the Left, bitter at the betrayal of the Radiant Socialist Future, has slumped back into something resembling the 19th Century liberal hatred of Russia as the heartland of reaction and ultramontane power. Standards of fairness in press coverage have generally been appalling.

None of this detracts from the point that Kremlin efforts at communication are fairly pathetic, except when the president himself becomes involved – and he has a busy schedule. Perhaps this is a holdover from Soviet days, when it was not necessary to explain or to sell policy, either domestically or abroad. It was sufficient to simply state it.

Of course, the same people who taunt the Russian government for its inability to communicate are horrified when they actually take a stab at it, setting up a television news station to try to get their point across. This is not so unique – the Bush administration has FoxNews, the French are establishing their own 24-hour news program, South America has its Venezuela-sponsored television, the Middle-East a profusion of them, so why not Russia?

Russia Today was ridiculed by the Western press long before its first broadcast. While we initially feared the worst, in fact, they hired a young and largely Western team. They are not hugely experienced, but what we have seen of their initial product is slick, well produced, and no less compelling than the competition. Unfortunately, they have rather too many long documentaries on Old Believers and Siberian ice fishermen.

Whether or not they will find a huge audience remains to be seen – but certainly, given the sad standards of Russian coverage in the Western media, a bit of pluralism is to be welcomed.

William Dunkerley, Russian media business analyst and consultant:

Russia’s media sector has both an image problem and a presentation problem. Most Westerners I’ve spoken with who recall hearing anything about the Russian media milieu are likely to believe that “Russia’s free press has been oppressed by Putin.”

Consider the following charges:

1) Freedom of the press is being threatened by elements within the Russian government.

2) The administration has undermined and compromised the independence of privately owned television stations and other media enterprises.

3) The government used criminal investigations and presidential security forces against key media entrepreneurs.

4) Crimes against journalists suspiciously remain unsolved.

I’d wager there’s nary a critic of the Putin administration who would take issue with these statements. It is popularly believed that the media enjoyed freedom and independence under Yeltsin. However, the above charges were made in September 1995, when Boris Yeltsin was president in his first term.

These allegations were embodied in a Sense of Congress resolution introduced by U.S. Representative Thomas Lantos (D-California). Lantos acquired this information in the following way:

Vladimir Gusinsky, then owner of the television network NTV, was airing a satirical puppet show, “Kukli,” that took aim at President Yeltsin and Prime Minster Viktor Chernomyrdin. As a result, Yeltsin had the Procurator General bring charges against Gusinsky for insulting high government officials. In response, Gusinsky hired former Congressman Don Bonker (D-Washington), then a Washington lobbyist, to deal with the problem. Bonker wrote the resolution and convinced former colleague Lantos to introduce it in Congress, criticizing Yeltsin’s heavy-handedness with the press, and casting doubt upon continued U.S. support for Yeltsin’s reforms. The affair eventually ended with the Procurator General being fired; and the action against Gusinsky being dropped.

Compare 1995 with 2005. At both times, you have oligarch-inspired charges against the prevailing administration that press freedom is being decimated. The oligarchic perspective has become the mainstream understanding of the issue, never mind that these allegations represent a distortion of the truth. If this isn’t a problem of image, I don’t know what is.

In reality, though, it’s even worse. There never was any free press for either Yeltsin or Putin to threaten or undermine. Right from the start of the Russian Federation, there were laws that interfered with the ability of any news outlet to become a profitable business and, thus, free and independent. The media have survived only by serving as paid propagandists for politicians and oligarchs, among others.

Even though Putin’s handling of the media has been a major area of foreign criticism, the administration has not made an effective presentation to counter the oligarchs’ claptrap. It goes largely unobserved that Putin put an end to the restrictive laws that squelched media profitability and freedom. One reason is that although the laws have changed, not much else is different. The various financial overlords still have a choke hold on the press. What’s more, the administration has even joined that horde through its control of the Gazprom-Media properties.

For Putin to get out from under the anti-free-press image, it will take more than merely offering a “Russian perspective” to the world. After all, you can’t put a bikini on the barnyard pig and call it a beauty queen. The Russian Media Fund (, the private sector initiative that successfully advocated changing the laws that financially had hobbled the press, now is offering a plan to clean up the media business culture. That’s what’s needed to inspire trust in the media and in the president’s media agenda. Once that is accomplished, Russia Today surely will possess the needed ingredients for changing world perceptions about Putin and the media. Provided, of course, that Russia Today itself will have earned a reputation for integrity.

Donald Jensen, director of communications, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty:

Improving Russia's image is quite a different thing than providing a “Russian perspective.” It is important to keep the differences in mind when assessing the Kremlin’s recently increase in efforts to rely on “soft power” beyond its borders. Among these steps I would mention not only the creation of Russia Today and the hiring of two prominent Westerners to work in its energy sector, but also the upgrade of the public activities of the RIA-Novosti Washington Bureau, the possible creation of a Kremlin-funded think tank in Washington, D.C., and the reported creation last summer of a unit in the Presidential Administration designed to expand Russian cultural influence beyond its borders.

Many people regard Russia favorably, even in the United States. This is due to its cultural and scientific accomplishments, its move away from its Soviet past and, more recently, its support for the United States in the war on terror. Its image has slipped badly in the past few years, however, as corruption has grown and Putin has rolled back Western-style civil liberties. Many people abroad automatically attribute malign motives to Russia – a habit from the Cold War past. But it is also the case that Russian words and actions do much to encourage such suspicion. A Russian perspective, by contrast, would seek to explain events from Moscow's point of view: what is happening, and why, and the importance of an event from Moscow’s point of view. A Russian perspective on Iran’s nuclear program, for example, is quite different from the perspective of Israel or the United States.

Russia’s current attempts at better public relations are unlikely to have much impact. Hiring Schroeder and Evans comes across as a cynical attempt to put a civilized face on Russia’s rapacious energy sector. A Washington-based think tank would be potentially useful in giving a Russian perspective, but would have to overcome a strong initial suspicion that was out to rationalize Russian policies, no matter how ill-advised. Russia Today is an interesting venture, but given the dependence of the media on the state today, its broadcasts will be widely viewed as propagandistic.

If there is a problem with Russia's international image – and increasingly there is – it is because, as Peter Lavelle points out, Russia's ruling elite is often its own worst enemy. A press freer to discuss Russia’s warts might make elites cringe, but it would also better familiarize foreigners with the country’s complexity and the many good things that are happening. The result would be less an upgrade in image than an increase in familiarity. That, more than anything else, would lend credibility to the Russian perspective.

Edward Lozansky, president of the American University in Moscow:

Russia’s image in the world does not correspond to the reality for several reasons. There are many active players interested in damaging and denigrating it, but there are very few who try to balance this avalanche of negative publicity. Among the first are some of the East European and Baltic States as well as Ukraine, and their respective diasporas. They hate Russia no matter whether it is a monarchy, communist dictatorship or democracy and most of them have powerful lobbies in the West. Next on this list are the disgraced oligarchs who throw millions of dollars to fuel the anti-Russian campaign by pretending it is directed only against Putin. However, since Putin enjoys an unprecedented and steady approval rating upwards of 70 percent, it is very hard to separate anti-Putin rhetoric from anti-Russian.

We often hear statements from the Czech or Polish politicians and intellectuals that Russia does not belong to the European civilization. Not too long ago, I heard the same message from the Ukrainian foreign minister Boris Tarasyuk during his address at George Washington University. It goes without saying that in his mind Ukraine is, of course, an integral part of this civilization. Did any one of these people studied Russia's contribution to the world’s literature, culture and science and compared it with that of all East European countries plus Ukraine combined? Do I have to tell you the answer?

Add to this the Western media bias and general Russophobia which has already been discussed, and you will understand why Russia’s image is so unattractive.

It is possible to say that America’s image in the world is even worse despite the fact that America is spending billions to present itself in a more positive way. This is probably true but it does not excuse Russia from doing nothing or too little to work on its image. America, after all, in its present status can afford to ignore its haters while Russia hardly has that option. The bad image of the country affects the business and investment climate and, in my opinion, Russia should undertake serious efforts to present to the world a more realistic picture of itself.

TOPICS: Foreign Affairs; News/Current Events; Russia
KEYWORDS: lavelle; russia
A panel of experts discuss Russia's image in the world.
1 posted on 12/31/2005 5:27:27 PM PST by GarySpFc
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To: GarySpFc

Preoccupation with image is symptomatic for inferiority complex. As Omar Khayyam wrote about 800 years ago: "if a wine is good and not diluted, there is no need to praise it". Ditto here: if and when they take care of the underlying reality [which admittedly is more difficult than image manipulation], the image will take care of itself, and they will become a magnet for illegal immigration.

2 posted on 12/31/2005 5:38:52 PM PST by GSlob
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To: GSlob

It's obvious you did not read the article.

3 posted on 12/31/2005 5:46:41 PM PST by GarySpFc (De Oppresso Liber)
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To: GarySpFc

Wrong. I have read it, and was looking into the motivation of assembling the article in the first place.

4 posted on 12/31/2005 5:48:26 PM PST by GSlob
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To: GSlob

Sorry, but I do not believe you. The article is not about Russia's preoccupation with image, but about its image, and why it has problems with that image.

5 posted on 12/31/2005 5:52:19 PM PST by GarySpFc (De Oppresso Liber)
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This is likely a Russian propaganda, someone likely paid to write this crap.

6 posted on 12/31/2005 6:19:20 PM PST by Wiz
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To: Wiz

No, the article was written by Peter Leville, an American.

7 posted on 12/31/2005 6:46:36 PM PST by GarySpFc (De Oppresso Liber)
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To: GarySpFc

"“improve Russia’s image”"

Get ready for more propaganda.

8 posted on 01/01/2006 5:03:58 AM PST by RoadTest (Religion never saved a soul - that's Jesus' job.)
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To: GarySpFc

"We live in an era of “spin” and the Kremlin spin-doctors are rank amateurs at the art."

Thay practicallyinvented the art of spin, after Goebbels.

I can't feel sympathetic to a nation that keeps sharpening it's offensive missiles that are pointed down our throat.

That whole article is making excuses for an evil regime that's involved in much of the worldwide mischief.

9 posted on 01/01/2006 8:04:21 AM PST by RoadTest (Religion never saved a soul - that's Jesus' job.)
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To: Wiz; GarySpFc
This is likely a Russian propaganda, someone likely paid to write this crap.

Please click the keyword „Lavelle”. Not many people know that I’m collecting this trash :)

10 posted on 01/01/2006 3:42:58 PM PST by Lukasz
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To: Lukasz

LaVille is an American reporter for upi with a Ph.D. living in Moscow. The only reason you label it trash is because you lie CONSTANTLY.

11 posted on 01/01/2006 3:53:56 PM PST by GarySpFc (De Oppresso Liber)
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To: RoadTest

Let's not be hypocritical here. Do you know President Bush created a Public Diplomacy undersectretary position at State Department? If it's ok for us to do, should we criticize others for doing the same?

"U.S. engagement in the world and the Department of State's engagement of the American public are indispensable to the conduct of foreign policy. The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Karen Hughes, is laying the foundation for public diplomacy for the long term by implementing a comprehensive strategy based on three strategic objectives:

Offer people throughout the world a positive vision of hope and opportunity that is rooted in America's belief in freedom, justice, opportunity and respect for all

Isolate and marginalize the violent extremists; confront their ideology of tyranny and hate. Undermine their efforts to portray the west as in conflict with Islam by empowering mainstream voices and demonstrating respect for Muslim cultures and contributions

Foster a sense of common interests and common values between Americans and people of different countries, cultures and faiths throughout the world."

The basline mission of this office is to improve the public image of the US in the world.

12 posted on 05/18/2006 5:19:50 PM PDT by Romanov
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To: Romanov

You cannot blame them for trying to improve their image. But allying with Sudan, Iran, North, Venezuela, Syria, seemingly supporting North Korea, the war crimes in Chechnya, the journalists dying, the Russian weapons in terrorist hands, etc might be why they need to work on their image. They might have a bad image for a very good reason.

13 posted on 10/16/2006 10:55:48 AM PDT by gafusa
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