Why Russia’s international image is plummeting

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 low.

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 understand.

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 stay!”

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 implemented!

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 relations!

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 weakened!”

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.