Nog een paar leestips voor de Ruslandliefhebbers: kijk eens naar de fraaie serie over de Russische jeugd in Russia Profile (op de blogroll). Voorts een koelbloedig ‘Why do they hate us’-stuk, over Ruslands arrogante buitenlandse politiek uit Johnsons’s List, dat vooral opvalt omdat het in het doorgaans zo patriottische Moskovski Komsomolets stond. Kan helaas niet linken, dus plak ik

Nog een paar leestips voor de Ruslandliefhebbers: kijk eens naar de fraaie serie over de Russische jeugd in Russia Profile (op de blogroll). Voorts een koelbloedig ‘Why do they hate us’-stuk, over Ruslands arrogante buitenlandse politiek uit Johnsons’s List, dat vooral opvalt omdat het in het doorgaans zo patriottische Moskovski Komsomolets stond. Kan helaas niet linken, dus plak ik het hier maar, onder de vouw…


Moskovskii Komsomolets
No. 78
April 12, 2006

Why Russia’s international image is plummeting
Author: Mikhail Rostovsky

In Vladimir Putin’s seventh year as president, our gold and
currency reserves are at a record high. On the contrary, the
outside world’s good opinion of Russia has dropped to a 15-year
low. This is due to the Kremlin’s chaotic foreign policy in the
CIS and worldwide.]

      The Kremlin’s frantic attempts to improve Russia’s image
abroad are somewhat reminiscent of the failed North Korean
project. More and more efforts and money are being directed into
it, but North Korea is still in decline.
      In Vladimir Putin’s seventh year as president, our gold and
currency reserves are at a record high. On the contrary, the
outside world’s good opinion of Russia has dropped to a 15-year
      After his first meeting with Putin in 2001, President George
W. Bush spoke of him in lyrical tones: “I looked into his soul.”
These days, Bush’s comments sound extremely ambivalent: “I’m not
entirely disillusioned with Russia.” The Bush Administration still
includes a “friendship with Moscow” faction - Thomas Graham,
special aide for Russia, and his superior, National Security
Advisor Steven Hadley - but this duo is increasingly acquiring a
reputation as wishful thinkers. Even a prominent Russia specialist
and political moderate like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is
increasingly inclined to support the hardliners, headed by Daniel
Fried, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs.
      Outside the administration, things look even worse for us.
Time magazine has described Republican Senator John McCain, a
presidential contender in 2008, as a perfect political weather-
vane. And what is this weather-vane saying about us? He’s saying
that Russia should be expelled from the G8 immediately!
      London has to be one of the most Russified capital cities in
the West, with almost 400,000 Russians living there. At the
individual level, the locals get along fine with the Russians. But
views on Russia as a state are another matter. “The real Russia is
very different from the country described in the British media,”
says Sergei Kolushev, head of the Russian Economic Forum in
London. “These days, journalists are using almost nothing but dark
tones to paint a picture of Russia. I’ve lived in London for
nearly two decades, but never before have I seen such serious
problems with Russia’s image.”
      Of course, the West’s poor opinion of us might be written off
as historical hostility. But what about the CIS? In late March,
the Georgian newspaper Kviris Palitra polled 700 people in various
parts of Georgia, asking which country they consider to be the
most hostile. And 94.4% of respondents named Russia.
      Well, let’s forget about Georgia, where anti-Kremlin rhetoric
has long become a favorite pastime for politicians. Let’s not
discuss the Baltic states either, or Moldova and its Trans-
Dniester problem. Let’s look at Ukraine and the Kremlin’s
favorite, Viktor Yanukovich. The failed presidential candidate
hasn’t abandoned slogans like giving Russian the status of a
second state language - but his speeches now include more frequent
criticism of Moscow and assurances that Ukraine will stand by its
Euro-Atlantic choice.
      Out of all the regions that are important to us, Russia’s
prestige still remains reasonably high only in Belarus and the
Central Asian countries. Even there, however, any visitor from
Moscow faces a blizzard of questions from locals: why is the great
country of Russia behaving so strangely? What have we done to
offend it?
      Of course, this isn’t the cordon sanitaire we remember from
old history textbooks; but the wall of incomprehension that
divides Russia from its neighbors is growing higher and harder
with every passing month. Yet the Russian authorities seem to be
sparing no effort in their attempts to create an attractive image
of Russia abroad. They have established Russia Today: English-
language television broadcasts. They’re hiring lobbyists in other
countries. They’re entering into direct debate with critics at
various international forums.
      For some reason, however, the results seem to follow the
principle that a piece of bread will always land buttered side
down. Wits in the halls of power refer to Russia today as
“television to nowhere.”
      And our efforts to create a pro-Russian lobby group in the
United States, for example, are producing quite cartoon-like
results. This usually amounts to Kremlin-linked political
consultant Gleb Pavlovsky asking former Soviet dissident Eduard
Lozansky to write a couple of articles for low-circulation local
publications. Or the Russian authorities once again use the
services of Dimitri K. Simes, a leading American Kremlinologist.
In contrast to Lozansky, Simes is fairly authoritative in
Washington; but he’s compromised by his firm friendship with
Dmitri Rogozin, which other Russia experts in America find hard to
      Why are all our efforts failing? Kremlin-linked political
analysts like Sergei Markov say it’s all because the state isn’t
providing enough funding. Most likely, however, the real reason
lies elsewhere. In order to say something convincingly, you need
to have a firm idea of what it is you’re trying to say. But we’re
still having problems with that.
      Take our policy in the CIS, for example. When it comes to the
business interests of specific politicians and state-associated
corporations, the Russian authorities are often extremely
pragmatic in the CIS. Critics have spent years denouncing Russia’s
“gas in exchange for compatriots” policy on relations with
Turkmenistan - with no result. In return for supplying natural gas
at discount prices, President Niyazov is permitted to do whatever
he wants to Russians in Turkmenistan. But when it comes to less
mundane matters, our CIS policy course is still based on emotions
and a reluctance to face reality.
      In the Brezhnev era, any African dictator could secure the
Soviet Union’s assistance simply by claiming to be “building
socialism.” These days, Moscow isn’t offering African leaders
anything but the prospect of debt write-offs. But as recently as
18 months ago, CIS presidents were able to manipulate Moscow with
one catch-phrase: “We support the Common Economic Area project!”
Former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma was particularly
successful in this respect. A senior official in Moscow told us:
“A few years ago, I had my first private meeting with Kuchma. He
looked me in the eye and said: ‘I realize that there’s no future
for Ukraine in the European Union! Ukraine and Russia must stand
together!’ I was moved by this, of course. But that very same
evening I saw an official statement from Kuchma in which he said
just the opposite.”
      We might respond by deploring our own “gullibility” or the
“wily ways” of CIS leaders who behave like Kuchma. But we might
also put the question another way: why should the bosses of former
Soviet republics do anything different?
      “The American dream is understandable: a poor immigrant
arrives in New York, works hard for ten years, and becomes a
millionaire,” says a prominent member of Putin’s foreign policy
team. “The European dream is also straightforward: human rights,
high living standards, old-age pensions. But what is the Russian
dream? A steam-bath, vodka, and smoked salmon? But most of the
salmon sold in Russia comes from Norway. Most of the vodka is
produced illegally. And the world’s most popular kind of steam-
bath is the Finnish sauna!”
      Alas, it’s hard to argue with the assertion that no “Russian
idea” has yet been formulated. Attempts are currently being made
to turn nostalgia for the USSR into a national idea. But is that
slogan suitable for anything other than domestic consumption?
Let’s assume that back in the Soviet era, most Ukrainians really
were in favor of keeping the Soviet Union. But the Soviet Union is
long gone. What’s more, Russia’s leaders back then played an
active role in destroying it. President Islam Karimov of
Uzbekistan still gets angry at the mention of former Russian prime
minister Yegor Gaidar. According to Karimov, the forthright Gaidar
used to say: “We need to get rid of the Kazakhstans and
Uzbekistans, like shedding heavy chains!”
      Russia, growing fat on windfall revenues from oil exports,
can try for some time to base its policies on nostalgia for a
bygone era. For most other CIS republics, however, this is a
luxury they can’t afford. The abovementioned Moscow official who
spoke with Kuchma offers a tough diagnosis of the situation:
“Ukraine isn’t turning toward the West - it’s turning toward its
own national interests. That’s a fact we have to accept.”
      But the Kremlin seems to have drawn a somewhat different
conclusion: if the carrot isn’t working, let’s try the stick!
Unfortunately, in attempting to fix our old mistakes, we’re making
new ones. The abovementioned member of Putin’s foreign policy team
says: “Our CIS policy these days is based on ultimatums: our way,
or nothing. But our actual economic capacity to exert pressure is
declining. And our political attractiveness isn’t obvious, to say
the least.”
      Leading political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky says: “In
effect, this is what the Americans are telling the CIS countries:
you’re in deep shit, but we can get you out. Russia’s message
sounds different: you’re in deep shit, and that’s where you’ll
      This was particularly evident during the recent gas war with
Kiev. “That clash damaged Russia’s reputation to a huge extent,”
says Belkovsky. “All Ukrainian politicians had to make up their
minds: are you on Russia’s side or Ukraine’s side? As a result,
the Ukrainian elite is now almost entirely anti-Russian, differing
only in tone. For example, the elite of southern and eastern
Ukraine, formerly considered pro-Moscow, now believes that Russia
has lost everything there was to lose.”
      Indeed, out of all Ukraine’s political forces, only Natalia
Vitrenko’s party can now be described as unconditionally pro-
Russian. But despite all the efforts on its behalf by Gleb
Pavlovsky’s political consulting agency, Vitrenko’s party couldn’t
even manage to get past the 3% threshold in the latest election!
      Russia’s reputation in the CIS is still undermined by many
sore points inherited from the Yeltsin era. Against a backdrop of
renewed friendship between Moscow and Tashkent, it’s not the done
thing these days to mention how Uzbekistan quit the CIS Collective
Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in 1999. At the time,
President Karimov’s domains faced an incursion by militants from
the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Karimov requested military
assistance from Russia, the CSTO leader. In effect, he was told to
get lost.
      Such a disgraceful situation would never happen with Putin at
the helm, of course. But Russia’s fulfillment of its commitments
still remains extremely low. Informed sources estimate that only
2% of inter-governmental commission decisions are actually
      With every passing year, the unrecognized republics situation
is becoming an increasingly serious problem for Russia and its
image. This applies to South Ossetia and Abkhazia in particular.
These quasi-states arose due to a combination of two factors: the
foolish nationalist policies of former Georgian president
Gamsakhurdia, and Moscow’s wish to retain at least some leverage
in that region.
      Fifteen years later, these two republics remain Russia’s
chief bridgeheads in the South Caucasus - but their future is
uncertain. Some Russian politicians, such as Defense Minister
Sergei Ivanov, maintain that there is a way out of this impasse.
In their opinion, the almost-inevitable declaration of
independence for Kosovo will set a precedent. If Kosovo can do it,
why can’t Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
      But the West has already found an antidote to that political
project. First, the United States and the European Union will
twist Serbia’s arm so that it doesn’t raise any objections to
Kosovo’s new status. Recognition of Kosovo’s independence will
then be pushed through the UN Security Council. And Russia won’t
have any reason to exercise its veto power; we can’t object more
strongly than the Serbs, after all.
      Obviously, there’s no way the UN Security Council would
recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia - so the
question of their future status is left hanging. Meanwhile, the
very existence of the two unrecognized republics undermines
Russia’s image in Georgia at the most basic level.
      “Irreversible processes are under way in Georgia,” says
Major-General Yuri Kobaladze (retired), formerly with Russia’s
Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). “Those who hold power in
Tbilisi now are the last generation of Georgian politicians to
speak fluent Russian. What Moscow fails to understand is that
Georgia’s attitude to the problem of Abkhazia and South Ossetia
doesn’t depend on the identity of Georgia’s president. At this
stage in history, it’s impossible for Russia to make itself as
attractive to Georgia as it used to be. Georgia has chosen to back
a stronger player: the United States and NATO.”
      So the unrecognized republics aren’t just an instrument of
Russian influence, but also a factor that acts to weaken Russian
influence. There are many such paradoxes in Russia’s CIS policy.
But in order to find a way out of this logical impasse, we first
need to understand what Russia actually wants to achieve in the
CIS. Does Russia want a civilized divorce, as Putin put it
recently? Then it shouldn’t demand close relations and loyalty
from its “ex-spouses.” Does Russia want to retain old
relationships under new names? Then it shouldn’t talk of divorce.
Does Russia want both at once? That seems to be a breakthrough
into a completely unprecedented form of family-political
      What’s more, Russia’s foreign policy course outside the CIS
is based on the very same principles. It also involves continual
shifts from one extreme to another, and complete confusion
regarding enemies, friends, and policy as a whole.
      Energy superpower. After lengthy efforts, the Kremlin’s
political strategists have finally thought up a pretty phrase to
describe Russia’s current condition. But what really lies behind
those two words? They might be synonymous with another concept:
raw materials appendage.
      And that’s precisely the reason for our foreign policy
failures and consequent image problems. Yuri Kobaladze says:
“Without any real grounds, we have started asserting again that
we’re a great country and others take account of us. Alas, such
rhetoric only works for domestic consumption. Other countries
won’t really take account of us until our economy is at least one-
fifth the size of the American economy.”
      Unfortunately, this sad diagnosis is fairly accurate. Putin
recently called on everyone to stop dozing beneath the “oil
blanket.” But that’s exactly what is happening now. All the
propaganda fuss about being an “energy superpower” essentially
amounts to admitting that Russia is doomed to remain a raw
materials exporter. True, the official media are also saying a
great deal about our achievements in the international arms trade.
But experts predict that Russia’s arms exports might start
declining rapidly by 2008-10. We can’t keep milking Soviet-era
designs forever, after all, while investing almost nothing in new
research and development!
      In the modern world, dependence on raw materials exports
dooms a state to the role of an economic outsider. Other countries
are well aware of that.
      Stanislav Belkovsky: “Others started treating us with
contempt in the late 1980s. And Russia is still growing weaker.
Naturally, many of those around us are baring their teeth like
animals. After all, everyone wants to kick the lion when he is
      Besides the understandable wish to make rude gestures at a
weakening neighbor, there are several other reasons behind the
deterioration in Russia’s international image. Allegations that
the Kremlin is “behaving undemocratically” aren’t always
justified, by any means. Many people in the West forget that
establishing democracy is an extremely complicated and painful
process. Britain and America also made slow progress and
encountered many problems on their path to democracy. But neither
should the Kremlin reject all accusations out of hand. The Russian
authorities are running a real risk of throwing out the baby with
the bathwater.
      The increasing level of xenophobia in Russia is also
extremely dangerous for Russia and its image; the media in other
countries offer very vivid descriptions of it. And another point
is important as well. “Britons don’t get most of their information
about other European countries from the media,” says Sergei
Kolushev. “They visit those countries all the time and see
everything for themselves. But people in London believe all the
media’s horror stories about Russia. Due to our underdeveloped
tourism infrastructure, few of them ever go to Russia.”
      Still, the main point lies elsewhere. We can bemoan our
inability to slow down the loss of Russia’s geopolitical
influence, but that’s an entirely useless exercise. It’s much more
important to get a clear understanding of where we’re going. Then
we’ll be able to develop a policy course that’s suited to the real
world rather than a world of illusions.
      Translated by Ewgenija Ryzhikova

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