Russia - Poor Politics or Poor Public Diplomacy?

Posted in Russia | 21-Jan-06 | Author: Dieter Farwick

Two sphinxs

In issue 1/2006 of the renowned German magazine Der Spiegel, there is a report about Russia’s image abroad and at home entitled “The Bear With the Balalaika.” This is a quotation from a Russian citizen describing his perception of the West’s bad image of Russia.

This bad image of Russia in the West is obviously of concern to President Putin. He has repeatedly blamed the West for having created a bad – and in his view wrong – image of Russia. Putin wants to improve Russia’s image through a public diplomacy campaign. Therefore, Russia started “Russia Today TV” in English with $30 million in start-up money.

The fundamental question in my view is whether or not good Russian politics were sold poorly in the past to the outside world or if poor Russian politics cannot be sold positively even by the best public diplomacy.

It is fair to say that Putin’s image in Russia is excellent. People have the feeling that Putin is striving for a “strong Russia” after years of weakness in foreign affairs and disorder under Boris Jelzin. Putin would easily win the presidential elections in 2008, if and when he would strive for a third term, which is at present prohibited by Russia’s constitution.

In Russia, the state-controlled media paint a positive picture of Russia, which contributes to Putin’s effort to promote a new patriotism in Russia. Public diplomacy works at home in a “closed society” – but does it work abroad?

The war in Chechnya, the gas blackmail against Ukraine, suppression of the free media, the law against NGOs, reports about corruption and organized crime, the trial against Khodorkovsky, the u-turn over the privatization of big companies, the dubious role Russia plays in Iran including the delivery of Tor-M1 anti-air-weapons for about US $700 million – to name some “bad news” – are perceived in the outside world and especially in the West as signals that Russia is on its way back to being an authoritarian regime of almost Soviet style.

These perceptions are facts Russia should take into account. These perceptions are not the result of poor diplomacy but of poor Russian politics measured by Western standards, values and mindsets.

It might well be that Putin’s handling of politics is in the short run the only way to keep Russia together and to run Russia’s state economy successfully, but he cannot expect the world to change its perspective.

In the long run, the post-Putin era might begin in 2008. Russia should change its policies for the sake of its own vital interests. For preparing the post-oil era, Russia should present itself as a reliable partner in the cooperation with foreign countries. Russia should refrain from using its temporary strong position as energy supplier for a kind of imperial politics of the past. Blackmailing Ukraine turned out to be a wake-up call for countries heavily dependent on Russia.

The year of Russia’s presidency of the G8 group with the summit in St. Petersburg might be a good opportunity to start new Russian politics – not just the same old public diplomacy.

This newsletter is entitled “Putin’s Cautious Nationalism,” written by Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh, one of our experts on Russia. Dr. Shlapentokh addresses the ambiguity of Russia’s and Putin’s image at home and abroad. He had the chance to speak with ordinary Russians and hear their views.

He recommends that Western observers and pundits treat Russia and Putin in a fair way and avoid simplistic conclusions.