Thursday, March 25, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Efforts to Improve Russia’s Image Abroad a Costly Failure, Experts Say

Paul Goble

New York, March 25 – Despite spending “significant sums” in recent years to promote a positive image of Russia abroad, participants in a Moscow roundtable say, the Russian government has largely failed to achieve its goal because it has forgotten that while a country may be possible “to purchase ‘an image,’” its “reputation” will usually reflect reality.
Yesterday at a roundtable on “Images of Russia: Stereotypes, Paradoxes and Reality,” Nikolay Levichev, the head of the Just Russia fraction in the Duma and chair of this meeting, said bluntly that Moscow’s efforts in recent years to “create a positive image of Russia” have not succeeded (
Russia missed a chance at the Vancouver Olympics to improve its image, he said, adding that Russia’s victory in the follow-on Para-Olympics has not been presented as a cause for pride but rather become a source of jokes on the Internet, with various bloggers now making fun of Russia’s “para-shield,” “para-democracy,” and “para-economy.”
Levichev noted that “certain countries in general do not have any idea where Russia is located or what our country represents.” They associate the words “’Russian’ and ‘Russia’ not with the cosmos, ballet or hockey but with disasters, the absence of democracy, and Moscow’s failure to eliminate the death penalty.
And that should not be the case, he continued. Not only have Russian oligarchs “bought up over recent years quite significant foreign media outlets” – although he noted that as a condition of these purchases, they had to promise not to interfere editorially – but the government itself has also been pushing its “Russia Today” electronic and print media efforts.
Igor Yevdokimov, deputy head of the foreign ministry’s information and press department, said that Moscow was not spending that much. He said that “less than 1.5 million dollars” is currently allotted each year. But others at the session suggested he must be talking only about the foreign ministry’s own operation and not that of the entire Russian government.
Following Yevdokimov’s intervention, Levichev remarked that “as a rule, ‘image’ is something that one can buy, but ‘reputation’ is something that is the product of what is in fact the case,” a view that was supported by Valentina Fedotova, a senior scholar at the Academy of Sciences Institute of Philosophy.
She urged those taking part “not to put their hopes only on an external, specially formed image of Russia.” Indeed, she continued, she “does not consider effective the application of the comparatively new term ‘imageology’ as a recipe for improving the way in which others view Russia.”
Those who use the term, Fedotova continued, almost always are concerned “only” about image and not about reality. “After the collapse of the USSR, [the country’s] ideology and social conceptions suffered a defeat. Nothing remained in place of them.” But now, unfortunately, “imageology is trying to occupy this space.”
A much more productive approach, she argued, was to use the ideas of “’soft power,’” something that focuses on such traditional sources of Russian influence as literature, art and science. Worrying about image alone is another example, she suggested of the rise of imported “mass culture” into Russia, a trend she suggested that was bringing much harm.
Mikhail Starshinov, another Just Russia Duma deputy, said the problem may be even deeper. Russia can hardly promote an image of itself until the country decides what that image should be and until there is the creation of an institution like the former CPSU Central Committee’s Propaganda Department that ensures a single message.
At present, Starshinov continued, “no one” is performing that role, and the results are all too obvious.
But it will be hard to reach an agreement over what “image” Russia should promote. Archpreist Aleksandr Makarov of the Russian Orthodox Church said that the country needs to position itself as a powerful Orthodox country, but Maksim Shevchenko, a television host and convert to Islam, said that “Russia must not be considered an Orthodox country” alone.
Other speakers at the roundtable provided additional perspectives. Lyudmila Adilova, a professor at Moscow’s Russian State Humanitarian University, called for the creation of new and “recognizable” brand” and “more effective propaganda media instruments.” That is necessary in work with foreign countries, because “the population has no common values.”
Aleksey Mitrofanov, a leader of Just Russia, agreed. At present, Russians are divided into a wide variety of interest groups, united only by “the struggle for ‘cash,’” a struggle that if it continues without change will not only further undermine Russia’s image abroad but condemn the country to “disintegration.”
Antero Airola, a Moscow correspondent for Finland’s YLE broadcasting company, acknowledged that “for Finns, such a ‘new’ country as Russia still does not exist. ‘When they say the word ‘Russia,’ they have in mind the USSR, and no one remembers that such a country has not existed already 20 years.”
Aleksandr Denisov, the deputy editor of “Azia i Afrika,” sharply criticized the Russia Today television channel for programming, including the beating of Blacks in Moscow, that shows the country in a bad light and thus reinforces negative images of Russia in the minds of many rather than replaces them with positive ones.
And finally, in a tone that likely upset some at this session, Vincente Barrientus, a scholar from Brazil’s Ibero-Latin Institute, went even further and called the leadership of Russia Today and the channel’s “style,” an enterprise in which Russians have placed so much hope, “juvenile” and “unprofessional.”

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