Lukashenko Hires British Image-Maker

BelTaLukashenko, left, meeting Thursday with image maven Timothy Bell in Minsk.
From Boris Yeltsin to Margaret Thatcher, from Alexander Litvinenko and Boris Berezovsky to General Augusto Pinochet -- Timothy Bell, the British godfather of PR, has faced some real challenges.

And now, the 66-year-old, staunchly conservative spin doctor again has his work cut out for him if he is to alter public perceptions of his latest client -- Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Lukashenko's nickname as "Europe's last dictator" is sure to feature prominently on Bell's things-to-tackle list.

"He would like his country to be better understood, and his successes to be better grasped" Bell said by telephone Friday.

Bell, a member of Britain's House of Lords whose most recent work has revolved around his friend and the Kremlin's self-exiled enemy Boris Berezovsky, was invited by Lukashenko to his presidential office in Minsk for a midday meeting Thursday.

At the meeting, attended by Belarussian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov and slowed by occasionally perplexed interpreters, Lukashenko told Bell that he wanted to hear how his company -- Bell Pottinger -- proposed to sell the former Soviet satellite to the West.

Bell refused to disclose the specific promotion methods he was considering, but revealed that Lukashenko said Belarus was a country willing to go to great lengths to be viewed as accessible.

"He has raised pensions and wages and would understandably like to shift the focus to these areas," Bell said.

"Lukashenko doesn't see why Belarus can't be a friend to the West and a friend to Russia at the same time," he said.

Asked whether he would advise on concrete policy changes for political clients, Bell said: "Yes, of course. But I view our work as more of an extension of policymaking rather than policymaking itself."

According to a statement posted on the presidential web site, Lukashenko told Bell, "You will find working in our country pleasant."

"We are counting on the fact that you will be a goodwill ambassador from Britain, with which we have actively developing relations, despite vicissitudes in the political realm," he said.

In a career that has spanned four decades, Bell appears to have kept business and personal ethics separate, seldom refusing to represent either -- or both -- sides in a squabble.

Because of his dealings with Berezovsky, however, he said, "I know we won't get any contracts with the ex-KGB guys, but then, we don't want to."

But in the case of Lukashenko he takes pride in working, as he put it, to reverse "isolationist policies" that have proved "unhelpful" to the country's foreign relations.

No one is denying that a little improvement in Belarus' image might help it economically.

"Lukashenko realizes the need to attract investment," said Yaroslav Romanchuk, head of the Mizes Research Center in Minsk. "But it's the age-old problem: He would prefer to take token steps that give the appearance of a favorable investment climate, rather than make the institutional changes that would make that a reality."

The "token steps" Romanchuk mentioned included the abolition earlier this month of the "golden share" scheme, which gave the government the right to intervene in the management of private businesses.

Another, Romanchuk said, was the release in recent months of several opposition activists considered by the West to be political prisoners. The country's most prominent detainee, Alexander Kozulin, is still serving a 5 1/2-year jail term for helping to organize protests against the president's re-election.

Lukashenko has also given the green light for a European Commission representative office to be based in Minsk. Difficulties have continued with the United States, in particular, as U.S. Ambassador to Minsk Karen Stewart returned to Washington temporarily last week following a recommendation on the part of Belarussian authorities, but the signs that Lukashenko would like better relations with the West are there.

Problems to the east may be part of the reason.

The resources of a still heavily centralized economy are drying up at a time when Russia, a formerly dependable neighbor that sold Belarus energy at bargain prices, is starting to demand world market fees.

The same thousand cubic meters of gas that Russia sold to Belarus for $40 in 2006 is likely to cost as much as $170 by the end of the year, said the Mizes Research Center's Romanchuk. That has narrowed the profit margins on Russian-derived gas that Belarus has been reselling to Europe at world prices.

As for the economic benefits he will receive from helping Belarus, Bell would only say that his company would earn millions of dollars over the space of several years.

Bell is best known in Britain for his advisory role in Thatcher's three successful election campaigns. Bell Pottinger handled the media attention for Litvinenko, the former FSB officer who died in London of radiation poisoning in 2006.

Bell is also no stranger to former Soviet states. Former President Boris Yeltsin sought his advice when he ran for re-election in 1996. He has also advised Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

Russia has also sought the advice of Western PR firms. In 2006, President Vladimir Putin hired British PR firm Portland to advise on the country's hosting of the G8 summit.