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One of the Antarctic explorers, Vladimir Pronichev (ITAR-TASS) February 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- When French police briefly detained Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov last month at a fashionable winter resort in France on suspicion of "illegal trafficking of young girls," public officials in Moscow condemned the action as evidence of an "anti-Russian campaign."

Aleksei Mitrofanov, a State Duma deputy of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, told NTV shortly after the incident: "They [the West] inherently dislike us. During the Soviet Union, when we were poor and traveled abroad with $25 in our pocket, they were suspicious, seeing us all as KGB agents. Now when we are trotting around the globe with large sums of money, they are still suspicious of us."


Many Western and Russian observers agree that relations between Russia and the West are getting worse -- but they disagree about why. Westerners blame rising tensions on the Kremlin's more aggressive policies, not only with regard to its CIS neighbors but also Western energy companies and the European Union. Russian observers, on the other hand, accuse the West of failing to consider Russia's legitimate national interests and indulging in unreformed Cold War attitudes, the worst expression of which is "Russophobia."


Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated that he shares Mitrofanov's sentiment. Asked by a journalist in Dresden last year about Russia's negative image in the world press, Putin said, "They dislike us simply because we are big and rich." He elaborated on this thought during his January 24 meeting with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi in Moscow.


"As Russia's economic, political, and military capabilities grow in the world, it is emerging as a competitor -- a competitor that has already been written off. The West wants to put Russia in some pre-defined place, but Russia will find its place in the world all by itself," he said.


Regardless of who or what is ultimately responsible for the worsening relations, the Kremlin has been concerned enough by Russia's rapidly deteriorating image abroad to launch a series of public relations events designed to enhance not only the image of the Putin regime, but also such key institutions, as Gazprom, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the armed forces.


Davos


The first in a series of such events was a visit by presidential hopeful First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to the World Economic Forum in Davos last month. According to many Russian commentators, the main purpose of Medevedev's trip was to present him to members of the world policymaking elite. Medvedev's 16 percent public approval rating is second only to Putin's, and it is double that of his closest contender, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.


Gazprom is also seeking to buff its international image following damaging publicity around the very public gas spats with Ukraine and Belarus and the company's reputation as a state-controlled monopolist. According to the Russian media on January 16, Gazprom's management has had negotiations with a consortium of Western public relations firms led by the Washington, D.C.-based company PBN about improving Gazprom's image in the United States and EU.


Inside Russia, Gazprom has a wealth of public relations tools and resources at its disposal, since it owns fully or partially hundreds of media outlets, including Channel One and the Ekho Moskvy radio station. Gazprom is currently conducting negotiations to acquire Putin's own favorite mass circulation newspaper, "Komsomolskaya pravda." Aleksander Prokhanov, the publisher of the national-patriotic weekly "Zavtra," regularly praises Gazprom for its "imperial role."


Trip To The South Pole


Following the killings of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former security services officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, the FSB has also been in dire need of an image makeover. And, like the Kremlin and Gazprom, it too has initiated a public-relations campaign, although its effort has a more unorthodox flavor. At the center of its campaign has been an expedition to Antarctica, the declared purpose of which was to reinforce Russia's claim to that frozen wasteland, undermining the United States' "monopoly" over the South Pole.


'Russia Today' broadcasts in English (TASS)

The purpose was twofold. To show that the FSB is at the frontline of Russia's national interests and revive the Soviet-era "heroic" image of the KGB. In 2003, FSB head Nikolai Patrushev made similar efforts and erected, with a group of FSB officers, a Russian flag at the North Pole, and, in 2004, an elite FSB force led by Patrushev put a Russian flag at the peak of Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe.


So on January 3, two FSB MI-8 helicopters flew from Punta Arena in Chile with Patrushev, First Deputy Director and Federal Boarder Guard Service head Vladimir Pronichev, and other assorted FSB officers on board. The expedition landed at the South Pole on January 7, where Patrushev telephoned Putin to extend his best wishes for the Russian Orthodox Christmas.


Russian television channels covered the FSB expedition extensively, noting that the trip was wholly supported by private sponsors and that the Russian flag planted at the South Pole symbolizes the restoration of Russia's superpower status.


Russian television broadcasts, however, failed to inform viewers that Patrushev was calling from the permanent U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole station, staffed by almost 100 U.S. citizens. Patrushev's team was bivouacked there waiting for suitable flight weather. And the phone he used to call Putin? That was actually borrowed from a U.S. explorer, according to NTV.


Spy Meet


Back in Russia, the FSB organized another event at its Moscow headquarters. On January 13, it invited 118 representatives of international foreign intelligence services accredited in Moscow to a Russian Orthodox New Year's reception. Attending the reception were representatives of 55 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, and China.


It was the first time the FSB had organized such an event. Following the reception, the semi-official "Rossiskaya gazeta" published a lengthy interview with Patrushev on January 18, in which he extolled the quality of his agency's antiterrorist operations, saying the FSB is the "best partner of the West" in the fight against international terrorism. The FSB now has official representatives in 31 foreign states, 20 of which are located outside the former Soviet Union. According to Patrushev, the FSB has even created a special Directorate for Foreign Special Service Cooperation designed to oversee contacts with foreign security services,.


The Russian Defense Ministry, riddled by stories of soldier hazing, desertion, corruption, and public mistrust, has also joined the image-improving effort. On January 15, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced the creation of a new Public Council for the Defense Ministry, which was founded at the behest of President Putin. The Public Council, which includes clerics, pop stars, and others from many walks of life, is chaired by Nikita Mikhalkov, an Oscar-winning filmmaker known for his pro-imperial and monarchist views. It will also include Muslim and Jewish clerics as well as popular singer, actors, and composers.


And in trying to improve its image Moscow might also set up its own network of nongovernmental organizations. For example, Anatoly Kucherena, a member of the Public Chamber, told RFE/RL on February 2 that he wants to create Russia's version of the U.S. rights watchdog Freedom House.


Russia is also aiming to increase the amount of "positive news" in international media. To this end, Moscow has reinforced foreign television and Internet broadcasting. For example, Russia has extended broadcasts of the English-language Russia Today television station and has launched Internet portals like rtnews.ru and russiaprofile.org.


Or as Putin's EU envoy Sergei Yastrzhembsky has said, "Russia needs rebranding."

RFE/RL Russia Report


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