Monday, June 29, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Image Problem ‘Not in its PRs but in Itself,’ Moscow Paper Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 29 – The explanation for Russia’s negative image in the West, one that a Moscow journalist argues currently makes the country appear “100 times worse than we are,” is to be found “not in its public relations specialists” or in a conspiracy by foreign governments but rather in Russians themselves.
In an article in today’s “Moskovsky komsomolets,” Mikhail Rostovsky says that most members of the Russian elite are “pessimistic” about the possibility of “a radical improvement in the image of Russia in the eyes of the ruling class of the Western powers,” having convinced themselves that their country “by definition cannot be popular” with democratic countries.
But such a view is doubly wrong, Rostovsky continues. On the one hand, Russia has been popular in the West in the past even when it had far more authoritarian rulers than it does at present. And on the other, it distracts attention from Russia’s own responsibility for the current negative image the country has (
For a greater part of the last 150 years, beginning with the Russian fleet visit to the US during the American Civil War and continuing through World War II, “Russia was the most popular European power in the US,” the “Moskovsky komsomolets” journalist argues. And he points to three reasons why Russia now faces difficulties in regaining such a positive image.
First, he says, the Russian diaspora plays a very different role than do other diasporas in the formation of American foreign policy. “As a rule,” the Moscow journalist observes, diasporas in the United States support their homelands. But the Russian diaspora, for many reasons, typically does not.
Rostovsky gives as an example a speech by one Russian immigrant at a meeting at Yale University after the Beslan tragedy. That speaker, émigré Professor Boris Kapustin, “began to shout: ‘The only salvation of Russia is to be found in the overthrow of Putin’s bloody and corrupt regime!’”
“By the end of his passionate address,” the Moscow journalist says, “all the Yankees in the hall were firmly convinced that Putin only eats newborn babies for breakfast and that among the dictators of the world, the only one worse than [the Russian one] is [North Korea’s] Kim Jong-Il.”
To acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of the three-million strong Russian diaspora in the US feels this way and is “categorically” opposed to supporting Moscow’s positions is something, Rostovsky continues, that “even now is very unpleasant” for officials in Moscow.
Second, the journalist argues, Russia’s image abroad is a reflection of inertia. “If one calculates that each new generation is formed over a period of 20 years, then as a minimum, he says, the last six generations of Americans have been grown up with the firm conviction that Russia is ‘an evil empire.’”
“In the romantic period at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, it appeared that all this had passed away. But this was an illusion,” because as Presidential advisor Mikhail Lesin puts it, “that which we then took for the love of foreigners was in fact their delight at their own victory.”
And third, he suggests, there is the question of interests. “Democratic” America and “imperial” Russia were drawn together at the time of the American Civil War because they had “a common enemy -- England.” Without one now, America and Russia have their own and very different interests, at least some of which bring the two countries into conflict.
“The majority of the American elite is firmly convinced,” Rostovsky says, that “the [mere] existence of Russia as a strong and independent world player contradicts the interests of the US.” That “naturally” does not mean that “anyone in Washington intends to convert us into slaves and dismember” Russia.
And Russians, the “Moskovsky komsomolets” journalist continues, really want and expect “gratitude for having established ‘a really democratic’ form of government. But in this regard, the Yankees are not opposed to repeating toward us the ‘joke’ which they played on England after World War II.”
In trying to come up with a strategy to change the situation, many in the Russian elite are inclined to assume that it is all a question of public relations and that some formula or other can be found to convince the American elite that Russia is on its side. But such views reflect a misunderstanding both of the US and of Russia itself
“Only the naïve can think that the White House or the State Department is able to direct the American press,” Rostovsky writes, suggesting that this is the worst form of mirror imaging because in Moscow “most journalists are subordinate to politicians” rather than seeing one of their major tasks as making the lives of politicians uncomfortable.
The “coordinated quality” that Russians see in the American media is the result not of orders from above but of “an enormous network of personal ties.” Politicians, journalists, businessmen, bureaucrats and scholars,” the journalist says, “exist in a symbiotic relationship in every country, including Russia.”
“But unlike [in Russia], the borders between the various ‘casts’ in America are often almost wiped out. Today you are a university professor and an active writer for the ‘New York Times.’ Tomorrow, you are an assistant secretary of state. And the next day, you are again a scholar or the vice president of a major corporation.”
Because the situation in Russia is so different, he says, the Russian elite does not understand how to influence the American elite. But there is “yet another important distinction:” In Russia, “all key decisions are taken either by one may or by a narrow group of people in the center of power.” Everybody else is on the outside looking in.
In the United States, there are multiple ways in which all kinds of people can influence decisions. And “any important decision in Washington is the product of a compromise between the White House and Capitol Hill, where Congress is.” As a result, there are multiple centers of power, not just one.
But there is yet another problem for Moscow, Rostovsky says. Indeed, the chief difficult is “not in our inability to find a common language with the Yankees. It is that the Russian political elite is not even attempting to do so.” As Svetlana Mironyuk of the Novosti press agency put it, “we are a community turned in on itself.”
It is extremely difficult, she told Rostovsky, “to force our politicians to meet with foreigners.” Moreover, the Russian Federation has few people ready to speak to the media. “At any moment, “Georgia can put in Washington a larger number of ‘talking heads’” than Russia can, despite the latter’s 140 million people.”
In conclusion, Rostovsky writes, Russians need to recognize that “the problem is not in the public relations specialists. The problem is precisely in [the Russians themselves.” The task of improving Russia and that of improving Russia’s image are not insoluble, he suggests, but they are both far more difficult and interrelated than many in Moscow now want to admit.

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