An interview with American image-maker Ken Feltman

Foreign image-makers have started visiting Moscow frequently. The goals of the visits are consultations for improving Russia’s image in the West, on the eve of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg. Ken Feltman is one of the most important visitors.

Foreign image-makers have started visiting Moscow frequently. The goals of the visits are consultations for improving Russia’s image in the West, on the eve of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg. Ken Feltman is one of the most important visitors. Feltman is a founding father of the American market of political lobbying, who advises leaders of the Republican Party, including George W. Bush. The former head of the American Lobbyist League and International Association of Political Consultants shared the secrets of his profession with us.

Question: For 45 years you have been working with the leading Republican politicians. How do you see Bush’s image in America and worldwide?

Ken Feltman: I see it as very poor. In the last year his rating has been declining steadily not only in the rest of world but, first of all, in the US. I presume that it is already hardly possible to stop the decline and it will continue. Low international prestige of Bush is connected with failures in Iraq. The latest polls show that many people, especially in Europe and in Moslem countries, believe that the Bush Administration’s policy in Iraq poses a much bigger threat to the world than Iran’s nuclear program. As to his low rating inside of the country, it is conditioned by unsuccessful actions during and after Hurricana Katrina in 2005 that practically wiped out New Orleans.

Question: Which recommendations do you provide to American administration because of this?

Ken Feltman: To start everything anew and to try to do the opposite to what is being done now in many aspects. In any case, I think that such approach will not help already. It is too late. You understand, a steady image of an aggressive person inclined to conformation was established for the incumbent US President. It will be very difficult to change such attitude. There is also no need for this. If changing of this image is started this will not be of help because people may suspect the President and his team of insincerity. Thus, President Bush is evidently doomed for low rating until the end of his second presidency term.

Question: What brought you to Russia?

Ken Feltman: First of all, business. Radnor company of which I am the head is one of the leaders in the US on the market of government relations and political consulting that lobbies interests of various countries, foreign companies and businessmen in American government. For contemporary Russia the view at which in the world is far from unambiguous our services would be quite handy. Hence, we came here according to request of our good Russian friends from Nikkolo M company.

Question: In Moscow you read a report entitled “US perceptions of the international image of Russia.” What are the main conclusions?

Ken Feltman: Following the example of Reagan the former Soviet Union was associated with the “evil empire” in the eyes of many people in the West. Not a single Western leader views Russia thus. However, critical notes started sounding in their voices more often. Russian authorities need to be more than attentive to this. It is common to believe that public opinion in the West is formed by mass media, various public and nongovernmental organizations. This is so and not so. Public opinion there is first of all formed by leaders. If you have read in any newspaper these or those data obtained on the basis of this or that poll, do not take this into account. This is just another matter if you have read opinion of a well-known politician. This opinion, although it is not quite correct, may become decisive. For example, I have read an article saying that Gazprom has stopped gas supplies to Ukraine. So what? I may have a judgment about this quite different from that of the journalist. However, I will look at the situation in an absolutely different way if a well-known leaders calls what has happened “political blackmail” by Russia against its neighbors. I have involuntary apprehensions: if Moscow has shut off the gas valve for Ukraine that has always been close to Russia it will act much harsher towards our European countries. In reality, this is not so. President Putin said frequently that even during the cold war years, Moscow did not stop gas supplies to Western Europe. At any rate, in America it is common to trust the words of its own leaders more than words of foreign leaders. That is why very few people in the US believed explanations of Vladimir Putin and majority of the people believed the words of Vice President Dick Cheney who accused Moscow of “political blackmail” against Ukraine and Georgia.

Question: What else does the West dislike in Moscow’s actions?

Ken Feltman: People in America are seriously concerned by the growing Russian-Chinese military political cooperation. People in Washington are inclined to think that the incumbent younger generation of Chinese leaders may turn to “hasty solutions” of global problems in the future. Nuclear cooperation of Moscow with notorious politicians from Tehran does not add optimism to the White House either. In any case, it was even not the gas conflict with Ukraine and the aforementioned problems that spoiled the image of Russia in the eyes of Americans seriously. It was much more serious that a stable opinion was established in the US and in the West that in Russia the press is not as free now as in the Gorbachev or Yeltsin eras. I can mention the following example. Soon after the events of September 11, a woman in Canada lashed out at Bush, accusing him of a wrong approach to combating international terrorism. In accordance with the Canadian laws this woman was arrested and charged with subversive activities. Canadians believe that if you criticize another government you make life much more difficult for your own government. This Canadian woman made a mistake because she criticized Bush in Canada, not in the US. Nobody would arrest her in America. I say this to show how important are such notions as freedom of press in the United States. Americans treat other countries and their leaders with similar standards. The same approach is applicable to President Putin too. The fact that the major part of Americans has formed an opinion that free press has grown seriously weaker in Russia is probably the main problem for the image of Moscow in the West.

Question: What about the personal rating of Vladimir Putin in the US?

Ken Feltman: The paradox is that sometimes people in America view Vladimir Putin not as at the President of Russia but as one of the European leaders. This means that they do not proceed from national peculiarities of your country. Some people in America somehow compare these or those actions of Putin with behavior of the French President or German Chancellor. When Putin acts in a way different from those leaders this confuses Americans. The reason is that all advantages and disadvantages of Putin as a politician are in his Russian roots. Overall, it seems to me that the West’s ambivalent reaction to President Putin’s actions is due to the fears of some Western “lame ducks” that he might play the leading role in the G8. This is already a serious aspect. Only recently, Russia was virtually a a servant in the G8 – and now it’s already claiming leading roles. Who would simply allow that to happen? That is why any and all methods are used to prevent Moscow ahead.

Question: Putin has stated frequently that he will not stay on for a third term. Why should Western leaders be so concerned about the image of an outgoing President?

Ken Feltman: It does not matter if he leaves or if he does not. The reason is that he is pursuing a policy that proceeds from the interests of Russia first of all. He is not going to get adjusted to anyone or to cater to anyone. Putin and Russia together with him is a serious political value that the next Western leaders will have to take into account in the future without looking at certain persons. The President of Russia will reassign the same manner of behavior or doctrine to his successor. As you understand, this is a serious challenge that not everyone in the West likes. Equal rivals are respected but are not always loved.

Question: How do you see the current state of Russian-American relations?

Ken Feltman: Just a few years ago, they were more positive. But now they are not so bad either.

Question: But why there is so much criticism coming from the West, aimed at Moscow? Do these reproofs have real grounds, or is there some kind of order behind them?

Ken Feltman: Of course, there is a real ground for discontent with each other. The two powers have their own global interests and they do not always coincide. However, this real ground is only a part of our differences. The second part is composed of the invented fears about which I have spoken before. Various PR agents play on these fears. Your incumbent authorities have enough internal and external enemies. They order the music. I am convinced that the current anti-Putin campaign in the West is primarily preordered and its major part is well paid.

Question: Is it possible that US Vice President Dick Cheney who is incidentally your client has been paid too for his recent critique of policy of the Russian President?

Ken Feltman: I think that in Vilnius Cheney has spoken sincerely. In any case, this does not mean that this “shot” of him has been successful. It seems to me that after his well-known miss during a hunt he keeps missing in political statements. In any case, his instructions only made the Kremlin angrier and nothing more. At least, they did not improve bilateral relations, whereas a serious politician should proceed from this very formula.

Question: On the eve of the G8 summit Moscow launched a PR campaign in the West with a view to create a favorable image of Russia as the chair of G8. Do you thin that these efforts have been successful and is it possible that new mutual accusations will sound in St. Petersburg?

Ken Feltman: I think that this will not happen. The hosts will not misuse their hospitality and the guests will not exceed the border that guests have to observe. In any case, it is impossible to doubt that this will be a summit difficult for all. This will be not because participants have suddenly become unpleasant for each other but because now they have to solve increasingly difficult problems. There are practically no easy ways left for their solution. Besides, different interests of each member of G8 hinder fining of solutions. Hence, they have to seek compromises and this is not easy and not quite awarding business. In any case, in the current situation it is impossible to expect any special improvement of the image of the host of the summit. The President of Russia needs to try to retain his positions and this will be a good result.