Image-building is set to pay off

A sweeping article by Peter Finn of the Washington Post - "Russia Pumps Tens of Millions Into Burnishing Image Abroad" - described Russia's increasingly sophisticated and well-funded effort "to build and project to the world an image of a country where the economy is booming and democracy is developing".

The article sparked a heated debate about the effectiveness of Russia's efforts to improve its image abroad and the best strategies that it should use to promote its side of the story on the political and economic developments in the country.

We at Russia Profile felt that the topic deserved a serious public discussion and, as the anchor of the Russia Profile Weekly Experts' Panel, I asked a American and Russian experts to assess the overall effectiveness of the Russian image burnishing efforts. Their views could be found at www.russiaprofile.org.

Russia is making a substantial investment in technologies and strategies to counter unfair Western criticism of democracy rollback under President Vladimir Putin.

As Peter Finn describes it, "the Kremlin is pumping tens of millions of dollars into various forms of public diplomacy. They include new media ventures to target international audiences; foundations to promote Russian language and culture around the world; conferences to charm Western opinion-makers; and nongovernmental organisations that are setting up shop in Western capitals to scrutinise the failings of Western democracy."

The latter is a brand new and a more sophisticated approach to project Russia's soft power and influence.

In 2007 Moscow established a range of NGOs, funded both by government and private donations, to promote Russia's cultural heritage through the studies of the Russian language abroad and to gather information on the state of democracy in Western Europe and the United States.

Russki Mir Foundation, headed by Vyacheslav Nikonov, gets $20m a year from the Russian government to champion the Russian language. Apart from its cultural function it is also a tool of projecting Russia's political influence not only in the former Soviet Union, but throughout the Western and Third World as well.

Russians have drawn their own lessons from studying how US NGOs - the National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House, NDI or IRI - are helping to project American soft power abroad by championing human rights and democracy standards that are congruent with American values and US foreign policy objectives.

But overall the change in strategy is welcome and long overdue. I think Russia has important things to say about a functioning democratic society and should engage the West in an open debate. As Eugene Kolesnikov argues on the Russia Profile Experts Panel: "Russian contemporary conservatism is not a different ideology but rather a competing view within the same ideological framework of the capitalist system. The main issue for Russia at the moment is the Western antagonism to Russian independence. As soon as this independence (and thus Russia's sphere of interest) is accepted, the antagonism will disappear..."

Is Russia getting a good return on its massive investment in image burnishing projects? I think overall the answer is yes, since the effort has been noticed and has already made some impact on the target audience. Some projects, however, have been more successful than others.

According to the Post, "russiaprofile.org has been singled out by a number of Western commentators as a smart, engaging operation featuring a range of opinions, including some quite hostile to the Kremlin".

"I think you can learn a lot reading that," said Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It is by far the best."

Vladimir Frolov is president of LEFF GROUP, a government and corporate communications company. He anchors the Russia Profile Weekly Experts' Panel at www.russiaprofile.org

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