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Analysis: Russia Gears Up To Improve Its Image Abroad

Are relations with Russia icing up again? (ITAR-TASS) A surprising number of contentious issues have clouded Russia's relations with the West in recent months. One of the effects of this tension has been stepped-up calls in Moscow to improve Russia's image abroad through energized public diplomacy. The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party has urged a public-diplomacy campaign aimed at "protecting the political and economic elite of our country" from mounting Western censure.

In recent weeks, the Russian media have raised the specter of a possible looming cold war with the United States. As evidence, they cite the National Security Strategy published March 16 by the U.S. White House, in which Washington criticized undemocratic trends in Russia.

A number of Russian observers noted that, for the first time since the events of September 11, 2001, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush failed to refer to Moscow as a "strategic partner."

A subsequent study by the U.S. Defense Department provoked an even more negative reaction. The Pentagon alleged that Russia in 2003 leaked intelligence to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein about American troop movements just ahead of the launch of the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq.

Russian observers were also critical of a March 5 analysis by the New York-based Council for Foreign Relations that described Russia under President Vladimir Putin as an increasingly authoritarian regime.

Information War?

And the purported Western assault didn't stop there. The pro-Kremlin website on March 28 accused former oligarchs Boris Berezovsky, Leonid Nevzlin, and Vladimir Gusinsky of "uniting efforts" with the West and launching a new "information war" against Russia. alleged the three, who still maintain some media influence in Russia -- and whose foreign television projects present direct competition for "Russia Today" and state-controlled Russian-language broadcasting abroad -- misrepresentend comments by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov regarding the hazing case of the Russian Army soldier Andrei Sychyov.

The same day, the website of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party outlined what it saw as Washington's main concerns regarding Russia: Moscow's efforts to push the United States out of Central Asia, as well as its energy politics, sale of nuclear technology to Iran, talks with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, and its policies on nongovernmental organizations.

A Russia Today television studio in Moscow (TASS file photo)

The website went on to say that Russia should respond to Washington's growing litany of complaints with a public-diplomacy campaign aimed at "protecting the political and economic elite of our country" from mounting Western censure.


In fact, Russia has already taken a step forward in its foreign policy propaganda efforts with the December 2005 launch of "Russia Today," a 24-hour, English-language television news channel broadcasting to Asia, Europe, and North America.

Moscow has also announced that, starting from April 1, it will air 18 hours of daily programming to Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, in partnership with a German broadcasting firm.

Some say such efforts are still not enough. Speaking March 28 on TV-Tsentr, Kremlin spin doctor Marat Gelman said Russia must do more to battle its negative image abroad, particularly in neighboring countries.

Gelman, himself the owner of a well-known modern art gallery in Moscow, said Russia should put not only news but culture at the heart of its public image campaign, and that Russia should make better use of what he called "museum diplomacy." Putin used this tactic in September 2005, when he opened an exhibit of Russian art at New York's Guggenheim Museum while attending a meeting of the UN General Assembly.

One Russian expert on public diplomacy, Igor Panarin, a professor at the Russian Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Academy, has proposed a five-step program for improving Russia's image abroad. The strategy is posted on Panarin's website:
  • Create a new presidential advisory post to coordinate all public information coming from the presidential administration and the government, including the Foreign Ministry and Security Council;
  • Establish a presidential administrative office of information analysis, as well as a state- and business-sponsored agency for foreign political news;
  • Form a state commission for public diplomacy that would include senior officials from the presidential administration, the government, the Duma, and national media outlets, as well as leading politicians;
  • Return the Voice of Russia international radio broadcaster and the RIA Novosti news agency, both currently under the supervision of the Culture Ministry, to the purview of the Foreign Ministry;
  • Create a number of Russian nongovernmental organizations with the aim of pursuing Russia's foreign policy objectives in the Commonwealth of Independent States, the European Union, and the United States.
Panarin's proposal is just one of many as Russian think tanks and media outlets with close ties to the Kremlin have step up their analyses of how to improve Russia's image abroad. Judging from Kremlin policies over the last couple of years, such proposals seem to be attracting attention.

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