Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Kremlin Assumes Control for Promoting Russia’s Image Abroad

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 17 – At the end of May, “Nezavisimaya gazeta” reports today, President Dmitry Medvedev created a new structure in the Kremlin to promote a positive image of Russia abroad, a group that apparently will play a far larger and more pro-active role than the foreign ministry body it replaces.
In an article entitled “Russia in Search of an Image,” Svetlana Khod’ko says that the new structure will work under the direction of Sergey Naryshkin, the head of the Presidential Administration (PA), and will include Aleksey Gromov, the PA deputy head, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Sergey Prikhod’ko, assistant to the president for international affairs.
“The main task of the new structure,” Khod’ko writes, “is to correct the image mistakes committed” over the last year,” since Medvedev became president, including the failure of Moscow to persuade other countries to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia and negative attitudes toward Russia in the CIS over financial arrangements (
The new commission, which the “Nezavisimaya gazeta” journalist will work behind closed doors, is not intended to “act as a fire brigade as the Foreign Ministry commission worked in the past but to predict the reaction of the international community already at the stage of the taking of this or that decision important for the state.”
Commenting on the formation of this new group, Mikhail Margelov, the chairman of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, said that its work would be directed primarily at public opinion because “foreign professionals know that bears are not walking about our streets and that the state of human rights here” is “not significantly” different than elsewhere.
In his view, the new Kremlin group needs to push “the image of a ‘good’ rather than a ‘strong’ Russia” as part of the “soft power” approach that is now so popular. And to do that, it must have a coordinated plan, one that will be “pro-active rather than defensive” in order to ensure that Moscow gets in the first word in any dispute.
Margelov pointed out that “in the countries of the former USSR, institutes of national memory are working. They develop claims against Russia and occupy themselves, as specialists say, with opposition research. This means that our image to a large extent is not in our hands. Why don’t we organize a symmetrical organization?”
According to “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” the new commission will use “domestic resources,” rather than relying on “Western consulting agencies.” But the Moscow paper added that one source “close to the Kremlin said that existing relationships with Western firms, like the one Moscow has with Ketchum, will continue.
Vladimir Putin was behind the idea of using foreign consultants, the paper said, but there are now concerns that even firms like Ketchum which experts “Nezavisimaya gazeta” constacted said have done a good job for Russia up to now may find themselves in a conflict of interest situation if they receive larger contracts from other firms or countries.
According to these experts, the period when Moscow relied largely foreign firms in this area has passed, and Russia will, under the direction of this commission, do more to promote its image with “expert seminars” like the Valdai Club – although that format too, these people said, is “beginning to exhaust itself” as well.
Three aspects of this report are noteworthy. First, the Kremlin’s decision to take over this function suggests that Medvedev and those around him are not entirely pleased with Lavrov’s efforts in this area and are not prepared to rely on the old commission which was created by and was until this move subordinate to Vladimir Putin.
Second, the notion that the commission will be pro-active not only in playing a role in Russian decision-making itself but also in anticipating and countering in advance negative stories about Russia points to a dramatically expanded role for public relations types in Moscow and a growth in their activities abroad.
And third, whenever a government Russian or otherwise begins talking about the need to promote its image and counter criticism, such comments typically indicate that there is a debate behind the scenes between those who insist that current policies are right but only misunderstood and those who suggest that the policies themselves are to blame.
Consequently, what may appear to many as little more than bureaucratic housecleaning could have a dramatic set of outcomes not only for Moscow’s public relations effort but also for its future elaboration of policy and hence for behind-the-scenes politics at the highest levels in the Russian capital.

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