Best foot forward

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 April, 2006, 12:00am

Spinning Russia is not an easy task, admits Margarita Simonian. First there are the stereotypes of bears, vodka and mafia hoodlums. Then there are the accusations from abroad of corruption and authoritarian government.

But for Ms Simonian, 26, chief editor of Russia Today, the English-language satellite television channel launched by the Kremlin in December, it is a daily challenge she claims to relish. 'We're not dealing in propaganda,' she said. 'We're just trying to give the world a better idea of what Russia is really like.'

As a dip in relations with the US threatens to sour President Vladimir Putin's leadership of the G8 group of industrialised nations, there are signs the Kremlin is stepping up efforts to burnish Russia's image abroad.

On April 13, the foreign ministry's diplomatic academy established a Centre of the State Image to map out strategy for the makeover.

RIA Novosti, the official state information agency which is also charged with public diplomacy efforts, is opening a new office in Beijing later this month, while Russia Today is soon to expand its network of foreign bureaus.

The channel - beamed by satellite to North America, Asia, Africa and Australia - is kitted out with state-of-the art technology and a US$40 million annual budget. It churns out feel-good features about the country's diverse culture and ethnic minorities, and news bulletins with a Russian slant.

Among other efforts, state-owned energy giant Rosneft - which swallowed up chunks of jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Yukos oil company last year - is offering expensive junkets to foreign journalists to show off its good governance of Siberian oilfields.

Mr Putin has faced calls in recent weeks to ratchet up public diplomacy to improve Russia's international standing. The Kremlin has felt the sting of recent criticism over disruption of natural gas supplies to Europe and the country's alleged authoritarian trend.

Some elites in Moscow are worried the set-piece meeting of G8 leaders in St Petersburg in July could be a public relations disaster if the US keeps up what is perceived as an 'information war' on Russia.

'People high up in the presidential administration understand the importance of pushing on with what they call the 'Image of Russia' project,' said one senior PR expert for a state-owned company, who asked not to be named.

The Kremlin is boosting relations with non-western capitals such as Beijing, meaning the image effort is not only aimed at the US and Europe. RIA Novosti's new Chinese-language service was announced after Mr Putin's meeting last month with President Hu Jintao .

Efforts to break down stereotypes and cultivate sympathies abroad are thought to be led by Mikhail Lesin, a former press minister who is now an adviser to Mr Putin.

The campaign is fuelled by a deep sense of indignation in Moscow that Russia is being unfairly denigrated for allegedly backsliding on democracy and pursuing a neo-imperialist policy in the former Soviet sphere. US criticism in the past two months has struck Russians as cold war-style rhetoric designed to distract attention from troubles in Iraq and Washington's attempts to achieve its own goals abroad.

'Russia's economy is growing, the country is coming out of a long crisis and, realising its strategic interests, it's strengthening its place in the world,' said a recent editorial on the website of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, which dominates parliament.

'This impressive picture of development and resurrection worries the west. Once again the US is frightened by the spectre of threats from the east - 'The Russians are coming!''

Russia's leadership was angered last month by Pentagon claims that it helped Saddam Hussein with intelligence on US troop movements in 2003. The National Security Strategy published by the White House on March 16 and a recent report by the New York-based Council for Foreign Relations also stuck in Moscow's craw for their highlighting of undemocratic trends in the country.

Another crack in the relationship appeared on March 29, when Mr Putin accused Washington of impeding Russia's entry into the World Trade Organisation.

It's all a far cry from the bonhomie that characterised US President George W. Bush's first meeting with Mr Putin in June 2001, when he famously claimed he had looked into the soul of the Russian leader and found him to be 'very straightforward and trustworthy'.

Earlier this month, Mr Bush came under renewed pressure from US senator John McCain not to attend the G8 leaders' meeting in July.

Senator McCain, a potential candidate for the presidency in 2008, has emerged as a prominent critic of Russia's present course, accusing it of curtailing press freedom, propping up the despotic leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, and failing to help limit Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Mr Bush said he was unhappy about some developments in Russia, but would still attend the meeting. 'I haven't given up on Russia,' he said.

Many in Moscow sees Washington's criticism and talk of rolling out democracy across the world as 'messianic' and a cover for encircling Russia by drawing former Soviet states into the orbit of Nato.

Some, alarmed by the growing gulf between the two countries, are calling for greater efforts to erode foreign prejudice. The US State Department has an under-secretary for public diplomacy - defined as 'promoting the national interest through informing and influencing foreign publics'.

However, Russia has no such post and most of the burden is taken by the information agency, RIA Novosti, which has only recently been injected with adequate funding.

Igor Panarin, a professor from the foreign ministry's diplomatic academy, said: 'There is so much ignorance about Russia in the US. We need to appoint at least a deputy foreign minister to co-ordinate our own public diplomacy drive.'

But analysts predict the growing charm offensive is more likely to be aimed at Asia or South America than at the US or Europe, because Moscow has growing trade, military and energy links with countries in these two regions.

Two of Russia Today's planned new bureaus will be in Ukraine and Georgia. The channel is soon to begin an Arabic-language service and earlier this month it covered Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov's visit to Brazil. Dmitry Trenin, a foreign policy expert from the Moscow Carnegie Centre, an independent think-tank, said that was because Russia was undergoing a fundamental shift in foreign relations to focus on ties with countries it saw as being on a similar path of development to itself, such as Brazil, India and China.

'Russia has left the western orbit,' he said. 'It was circling it distantly for about a decade, Pluto-like. But now it's gone.'

The logic is that Moscow felt short-changed after its historic decision to join the war on terror after September 11. In return, it expected free rein from the US and Europe to pursue its interests in the former Soviet states. But the west failed to deliver by pushing for Nato expansion, training troops in Georgia and interfering in Ukraine's elections.

Hardened to that disappointment and emboldened by high oil prices, Moscow now sees no need to pander to the US and Europe.

'Russia's foreign policy architects see it as an emerging power centre,' said Mr Trenin. 'There's a clear wish for the country to play in the top league, on its own terms.'