When Success and Image Don't Mesh

APA military vehicle seen during Victory Day rehearsals. Experts say the display did nothing to improve Russia's image.
The country's crumbling infrastructure might require an urgent overhaul, rampant corruption might need to be stamped out, and runaway prices might demand taming, but Russia's most pressing task, some observers say, lies in a completely different area.

"Improving the image, especially in Europe and G8, is Russia's biggest challenge," said Bertrand Malmendier, an international corporate lawyer connected to United Russia, the ruling pro-Kremlin party.

Russia's robust investment and economic progress appear to be sorely out of sync with its image and the headlines it produces in the West. With Central Bank reserves of $551.5 billion, the country has the third-largest reserves in the world, and it is earning about $1.1 billion every day from oil and gas exports, by some estimates. Foreign debt shrank to $45 billion last year from $144 billion in 1999, and gross domestic product grew sevenfold to more than $9,000 per capita over the same period.

Russian and foreign investors alike agree that Russia is a haven for investment amid the ongoing global financial crisis.

But despite the country's undisputable economic success story, some headlines have changed little.

"Russia, Financial Outcast," The Economist magazine proclaimed in February 1999 on its cover, which featured a puzzled bear inspecting an empty honey pot in its ice-covered lair.

This March, the magazine's cover showed the same bear eating oil out of a barrel painted with the colors of the Russian flag. The headline read: "The Trouble With Russia's Economy." As if to drive the point home, an Economist issue in 2006 portrayed then-President Vladimir Putin as a mafia don wielding a gasoline nozzle instead of a gun. "Don't Mess With Russia," the cover said.

"Whatever Russia is doing is reported in a stereotypical way," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of Politika, a Kremlin-linked think tank.

He was echoed by Vladimir Pozner, anchor at Channel One television and president of the Russian Television Academy.

"There's profound prejudice against Russia for whatever reason in the world. It has a negative image," Pozner said. Both he and Nikonov spoke during a poorly attended session about Russia's image at an economic conference in London in April.

When London Heathrow's new Terminal 5 was hit by flight disruptions and computer glitches in the spring, nobody said it happened "because Brits were like that," Pozner said. "If it had happened in Russia, it would have been first of all, 'Look at those Russians.'"

A more recent example involves Russia's first-ever victory in the Eurovision Song Contest last month. Russians widely interpreted the win as a sign that the country was winning more friends around the world. Scoring 272 points, Russia won by a wide margin, receiving the maximum 12 points from the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Armenia, as well as Israel. Other countries also gave Russia generous support.

"I am proud that the world loves Russia, and today's victory is proof of that," Alla Dovlatova, an actress and television host, said in televised remarks on May 25. She said any distrust of Russia was gone now.

Hours later, Western media carried reports of a conspiracy by the "Eastern European mafia" to help Russia win, and Terry Wogan, a British radio and television broadcaster, declared that an "Iron Curtain has descended across Eurovision." On top of that, some Ukrainians accused Russia of vote rigging.

"Even in the Eurovision win, some see some sort of machinations," said Margarita Simonyan, editor of Russia Today, the English-language satellite television channel set up by the state in 2005 to improve Russia's international image. Simonyan said she was not a big fan of the contest, which is commonly described as tacky and kitsch, or the winning singer, but as a Russian she was pleased by the outcome.

Amid the torrent of snide comments, some joked that Russia would have rolled a Topol-M missile launcher or a MiG jet onto the Eurovision stage to boost its chances of winning. Eurovision followed the Victory Day parade, which brought tanks, infantry vehicles and Topol launchers onto Red Square for the first time since the Soviet collapse.

The anti-Russia attitude should not come as a surprise because many foreigners still view Russia as a threat, and events like the May 9 parade feed into the perception, said Patrick Van Bloeme, CEO of Harris Interactive's French offices, which recently carried out a survey of Western attitudes toward Russia.

"Public opinion considers Russia to have a very strong leadership that makes them feel Russia could more easily be able to use military force," he said.

"Russia used to be part of the official enemy not so long ago," and military parades bring back memories of the Soviet Union, he said.

One out of every three Britons and Americans considers Russia a military threat, according to a Harris Interactive poll conducted for France 24 television channel and the International Herald Tribune earlier this year.

Malmendier, the lawyer with links to United Russia, said such fears were "ridiculous." The problem, he said, is that many politicians and officials in Europe do not bother to look beyond the often-hostile headlines and try to understand Moscow's viewpoint. Malmendier is based in Berlin and works for the European division of the Center for Social and Conservative Policy, a think tank established by United Russia in an attempt to get its message across Europe.

In May, the center helped organize a Russian Gas Society conference in Berlin, where senior Russian officials sought to forge partnerships with their European counterparts. Europe's response? The only European politician who showed up was Hans-Dietrich Genscher, a former German foreign minister who is now 80, said Malmendier, a long-time member of France's ruling UMP party.

Russia remains a mystery to the outside world, said Malmendier, adding that many of his friends did not understand the nature of his work.

What's the Fuss?

While many say the country urgently needs to tackle the image problem to avoid missing opportunities, others say they do not see what the fuss is all about. "It is unnecessary to worry about Russia's image that much," said Simonyan, editor of Russia Today.

The Problem: Russia's Image

What the Government Is Doing
  • Created the Russia Today television channel, which broadcasts in English and Arabic, and soon in Spanish.
  • Hired Western public relations firms like New York-based Ketchum and Brussels-based GPlus Europe.
  • Set up think tanks in several international capitals, including the European office of the Center for Social and Conservative Policy in Berlin.
  • Holds briefings with foreign reporters and has invited several foreign news agencies to travel with the president.

The Solution
  • Tackle poverty, corruption, bureaucracy and the other problems that spoil Russia's image.
  • Promote a free media and encourage other elements of democracy, including by making Russia Today a state news broadcaster completely independent of the Kremlin and government influences, like Britain's BBC or Canada's CBC.
  • Continue to use public relations agencies to tackle misconceptions about Russia but spend more money on the problem, including by increasing Russia Today's shoestring budget.
  • Continue to promote positive developments but embrace self-criticism and criticism from outside the country, including by ditching attempts to sugarcoat history.
- MT
Such a statement may come as a surprise from the editor of a channel started by a Kremlin worried about Russia's image. Russia Today has been derided as a Kremlin public relations tool, and even now, many are not convinced that it is needed, with Pozner calling it a "strange television animal." (As a former propagandist, Pozner told the conference, he knew from experience that such tools do not help. Simonyan, who was in the audience, stood up and said she disagreed with that view and hinted that Pozner might have an ax to grind. Speaking later in an interview, she declined to elaborate on that remark.)

Today, the channel boasts thousands of viewers at home and abroad and has received renewed attention from the Western media, including Forbes and The New York Times. Britain's The Sunday Mail called it the "Russian CNNski" in a story about a Scot sports presenter moving to Moscow to work for it.

Russia Today's promotional material quotes The New York Times as praising its "slick studio and polished graphics" and says Michael McFaul, the chief Russia adviser for U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama tunes in every night. So much attention from leading Western media means the channel is being taken seriously, Simonyan said.

Not quite, or so Forbes suggested in its tongue-in-cheek story. The magazine said it was entertaining to watch the channel, but for reasons few Western networks would be proud of. "The earnestness with which the young Russian reporters — usually attractive and fluent in English — strive to conform to the official stance on various issues" is compelling, the magazine said, adding that its reports range from "blatant examples of propaganda" to a story from Ukraine about berry-flavored vodka sold in penis-shaped bottles.

But even Forbes acknowledged that the government might need to convey its own message at a time when coverage of Russia is largely suffused with anti-Kremlin reports.

"By delivering the Kremlin's unvarnished point of view in an easily consumed, Western-style package, Russia Today manages to accomplish its goal: Get foreigners to at least consider the Russian viewpoint — however eccentric it may be — on world politics, culture, and yes, social problems," the magazine said in February.

Simonyan, speaking in an interview in her spacious office, said that as a journalist, she understood why there was so much negative-slanted coverage — "The good stories are always bad" — but she stressed that Russia Today viewers did not complain about the channel's positive spin.

The general tone of letters the channel receives is "Wow, we didn't realize Russia is like that," said Simonyan, who oversees not only the English-language channel but also an Arabic-language sister station. The channel plans to launch a Spanish-language station by year's end.

Simonyan said she was not the least bit worried about what Western media reported about the country, because she believes that persistently negative news reports often have the opposite effect on public consciousness, both at home and abroad. "I know people who begin to love our authorities and our country even more after listening to an opposition radio station," she said, declining to identify the station.

Claims of Western Bias

Western journalists take umbrage at any suggestions of bias on their part. "To improve Russia's image, the Kremlin needs to do something about thousands of raider attacks a year, about siloviki taking over big business and regional administrations ripping off small and middle businesses," said a journalist with a Western news magazine, asking for anonymity to speak her personal opinions frankly.

A U.S. correspondent, who sought anonymity for the same reason, said embarrassing criticism by the Western media only helps the government carry out an agenda of censorship.

"There's a tradition I see in foreign correspondents holding Russia up to some yardstick of Western good government that exists these days only in their imaginations, or in Norway. And of course the Russians love to hold up a mirror and say, 'Ah, but in America, you are worse.' Maybe. But we have reporters there working on that problem," he said.

Russians are sometime "very parochial," he said. "If they are concerned about bias in the Western media, why don't they expand their horizons? Do they see bias in coverage of China, of Western Europe? What's their take on the Africa coverage of the top five Western newspapers? If we're so biased, why are we only biased against Russia?"

He said that if foreign reporters had made a mistake in their coverage of Russia, it was that they had been too slow to "grasp the depth of the retreat from liberalism."

Simonyan said she did not think Russia would immediately start getting more positive media coverage if it solved problems like corruption or bureaucracy. "We will always be different," she said.

On the bright side, however, she said the country's image was improving. She referred to a poll by GlobeScan of 17,000 people in 34 countries that found that only 29 percent of respondents spoke positively of Russia in 2007. This year, the figure shot up to 37 percent, while 34 percent spoke negatively of Russia. That is a better result than that received by the United States, of which 47 percent of respondents spoke negatively and 35 percent positively, the poll found. Germany and Japan were the best-loved major economies, with 56 percent of respondents speaking positively of them.

Another poll provided by Russia Today showed that 49 percent of Germans did not think that the German media provided objective coverage of Russia.

The government seems so eager to promote a positive perception of the country that The eXile, a Moscow-based English-language tabloid, seems to have fallen victim to that goal. The publication closed earlier this month after investors withdrew their funding following a government inspection of its provocative content.

The Kremlin has repeatedly wagged its finger at foreign reporters for what it says have been blatant distortions of reality. In 2007, Putin said "ill-wishers" provided an "unfair interpretation" of events. "I am not saying it's done on a state scale, but there are such forces," he said at a news conference.

Kremlin Hires PR Firms

The Kremlin has hired two Western public relations firms, New York-based Ketchum and Brussels-based GPlus Europe, to improve Russia's image in Western countries, and they helped Russia prepare for the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg in 2006.

"The summit was seen by most people as a success," said a consultant working with the Russian authorities. He said the assignment has been "challenging but enjoyable, and together we've achieved a lot."

Dmitry Peskov, Putin's longtime spokesman, said he was pleased with the work of the public relations companies. He said work with them would continue, although he declined to go into details. "It's like riding a bicycle: It only stands when it goes. This is the work that all countries are doing all the time," he said. Peskov himself is a product of the Kremlin's attempts to improve Russia's image; before he became Putin's spokesman, foreign reporters had little hope of getting a comment out of the Kremlin.

Peskov also praised Russia Today for putting together a competent team in a relatively short time. Unlike global and more experienced players, the channel operates on a small budget but has found its own niche, he said, adding that he was certain of the channel's "bright future." The channel's annual budget is $30 million and has not changed since it opened, said a Russia Today spokeswoman, Yulia Yermolina.

Speaking of the Western media's coverage of Russia, Peskov said "biased" and "Russophobic" news reports did appear but that coverage was balanced on the whole. "I do not support alarmist moods," he said.

In an apparent effort to project a more open, accessible image of the Kremlin, officials handling President Dmitry Medvedev's coverage have offered international news agencies like The Associated Press and Reuters an opportunity to travel with the president for free. That privilege previously had been limited to a closely knit pool of Russian media.

Victories like Eurovision and Russia's recent string of triumphs in international sporting events boost international perceptions of Russia, image consultants said. Efforts by Russia to promote itself in a positive way in music, literature and even Hollywood movies also help chip away at Western stereotypes.

Asked why the Western media have not noticeably toned down their criticism in the past two years, the Western PR official said there was only so much that PR firms could do. "You have to realize the limits of what you can do. There are a lot of historical legacies," he said.

Peskov said the country actually has two images — an investment image and a political image — and the two might be different.

One investment banker has captured that sentiment in an investors' guide that rates countries like entries in Eurovision.

"Love them or hate them, the Russians are set to do very well" because of their natural resources, wrote Raj Shant, manager of the British-based Newton European Higher Income Fund. Even though "the Russian entries often sound aggressive to the Western judges, everyone wanting to stay warm next winter should consider voting for them."

Russia placed second in his guide, scoring 10 points. Shant said it only scored 2 points lower than Norway and Germany because of a greater political risk.

Russia is at a turning point and stands a good chance of boosting its positive image if the government delivers on promises to overhaul infrastructure, root out corruption and lift low-income families out of poverty, said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at UralSib Capital.

Time, however, is running out, and the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi will be a major litmus test for the government and the entire country, Weafer said.

Both Weafer and Simonyan said Russia had been too slow in getting its side of the story out.

"It doesn't matter if you are selling baked beans or the country: It's almost the same," Weafer said.

Putin, speaking in an interview with France's TF1 television channel in 2006, said it would take time for the country to reshape its image. "Sooner or later, everything will all the same click into place, because life will show how capital the changes in Russia are and how its role in the modern world is changing," he said.

Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of reports about the key challenges facing Russia today. Previous reports can be found at www.themoscowtimes.com.