By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 6, 2008
MOSCOW -- In early 2004, when Svetlana Mironyuk became director general of the Russian news and information agency RIA Novosti, she discovered that the descendant of the Soviet Union's global propaganda machine was dying on its feet.
Some of its writers were still using typewriters from communist days. The agency was publishing just one English-language newspaper, Sputnik, which was supposedly sold in Britain, although Mironyuk said she could find no evidence of that. Travel agents and dentists had moved into RIA's stolid Moscow headquarters building.
"It was a desperate situation," she said.
No more. The agency's newly refurbished offices include a high-tech newsroom, complete with flat screens and a circular news desk, where 300 journalists disseminate a multimedia package of news to an international audience every day.
RIA Novosti is part of a massive effort by Russia to build and project to the world an image of a country where the economy is booming and democracy is developing. The campaign is designed to counter what the government and many people here see as unrelenting and unfair Western criticism of declining political freedoms under President Vladimir Putin, who is preparing to hand over his post, but perhaps little of his power, after the election last Sunday of his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev.
Flush with foreign reserves from oil and natural gas sales, 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 organizations that are setting up shop in Western capitals to scrutinize the failings of Western democracy.
The Kremlin has hired the giant U.S. public relations firm Ketchum Inc. "to help the government tell its story of economic growth and opportunity for its citizens," said Randy DeCleene, an executive at the firm. He declined to further discuss the relationship, which began with the Group of Eight summit that Russia hosted in St. Petersburg in 2006.
The campaign is part of a resurgent self-confidence in Russian government and society and a conviction that the country is a global player with diplomatic, military and economic heft.
"It's all about influence," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a longtime Kremlin adviser and the head of Russki Mir, a new grant-dispensing organization that gets $20 million a year from the Russian government to champion the Russian language. Russians are studying how U.S. nongovernmental organizations operate globally to project points of view, he said, but added: "We are far, far from what the Americans are doing. . . . We are students, freshmen."
The effort has its skeptics, who argue that no amount of image-buffing can reverse, or even temper, deep-rooted concerns about the centralization of power under Putin and the withering of political competition here.
"If you had the PR account to improve Russia's image in the West, then your first recommendation would be: not to arrest Garry Kasparov, and allow Mikhail Kasyanov to participate in the presidential vote," said Michael A. McFaul, a Russia scholar at Stanford University and the Hoover Institution and the principal adviser on Russia in the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
Kasparov, a former world chess champion, is a fierce opponent of Putin. Kasyanov, a former prime minister, was barred from running in the March 2 presidential election.
"That's just bad, bad PR, and I'd add bad politics . . . for which no Ketchum contract, television network or foundation money can compensate," McFaul said.
Russia Today, a news channel set up in April 2005, is broadcasting in English and Arabic and planning to expand into Spanish. At first glance it looks a lot like CNN, but it can be a breathless cheerleader for the Kremlin.
Nikonov, of the new grant-making group, called the channel "too amateurish" and spoke dismissively of many of the other efforts: "Sometimes people spend a lot of money on nonsense."
The editor in chief of Russia Today would not agree to an interview without the right to approve all of her quotes, the channel's press office said. The Washington Post declined to accept those terms.
But other programs are gaining in nuance and sophistication. The official government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta is using its healthy profits to fund monthly supplements in newspapers in India, Britain, Bulgaria and the United States. "Russia: Beyond the Headlines," as the publication is called, is a paid advertising supplement in The Post.
The publication covers many "soft" subjects, such as Christmas in Russia and Russian tennis stars. Eugene Abov, who oversees the project, said it might be expanded to Asia and other countries of Western Europe, including France and Germany.
Reviewing the first Rossiyskaya Gazeta supplement in The Post last August, Jack Shafer, the media critic for Slate, which is owned by The Post, wrote that "beneath the shattered syntax of these laughable pieces beats the bloody red heart of the tone-deaf Soviet propagandist."
But Sarah Mendelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said she actually found herself reading an article in the latest edition. She calls the overall push "remarkable," aimed at general audiences as well as elites.
Many of the Russian ventures aimed at foreigners showcase a diversity of voices often denied to Russia's own residents, notably by state television.
Russiaprofile.org, a news and analysis site funded by RIA Novosti, 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 and co-chair of an advisory group on Europe and Asia for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). "It is by far the best."
Andrei Zolotov, Russia Profile's editor in chief, said: "I think we are in a very lucky position. We are small, we are in English, so we are probably below the radar screen of some particularly zealous people" who might try to shut it down.
Each year, RIA Novosti hosts 30 to 40 Russia experts and prominent journalists, mostly from the United States and Western Europe, who are wined and dined in the company of Russian policymakers and political analysts.
Some figures from the Russian opposition, such as former independent member of parliament Vladimir Ryzhkov, are invited to the event, called the Valdai Discussion Club. Ryzhkov, who rarely gets access to state-controlled television, has compared his role in such gatherings to export-quality vodka -- fit for foreign consumption but not a domestic audience.
The club's gathering culminates each year with a marathon question-and-answer session with Putin. That has become the subject of debate among Russia experts in Washington, with some suggesting that a few participants become too smitten with their hosts.
"I have been invited to every Valdai meeting but did not come," Leon Aron, a Russia scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in an e-mail. "As over the years there were fewer and fewer opportunities for Russians to learn the truth about their own state and government and to voice (and act on) dissent, being a privileged foreigner admitted to the court of the new tsar and surrounded by 'official Russians' . . . was more of an effort for me than I was willing to undertake."
"Official Russians" is a Soviet-era moniker for people allowed to talk to foreigners without fear of reprisal.
McFaul, however, said he was happy to engage with Russians on the issues and described the sessions with Putin as "really smart PR" because the Russian president is such an impressive interlocutor.
"It's an interesting window into how the ruling group is presenting itself to the world. And for those in the business of trying to understand the mind-set of Russia's leaders, it's a great opportunity," said Sestanovich, of the Council on Foreign Relations. But from a distance, the last meeting appeared like a gathering of the "president and his admiring international commentators," he said, adding, "That's unfortunate."
McFaul, who has been sharply critical of the Kremlin, said he is now banned from the gathering and believes his views are the reason.
Sestanovich was director of a Council on Foreign Relations report titled "Russia's Wrong Direction: What the United States Can and Should Do." He has heard he's off the list, too, but said that might be because he had turned down previous invitations because of prior engagements.