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The Rebranding of Russia

Brian Whitmore of RFE/RL has a great new article called “Spinning the Kremlin“, which takes a look at political branding efforts of the Kremlin. The article paints a frightening picture of an increasingly sophisticated and polished state propaganda machine. Whitmore writes: “Gone are the presenters in boxy gray suits, the monotone cadences, and poor production value that characterized communist-era news broadcasts. Such an approach would fall flat in today’s Russia, where an increasing number of people are plugged into a global media culture. “In the society of the spectacle, your spectacle has to be spectacular,” says Andrew Wilson, author of Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World.” The report notes how the Kremlin’s communications efforts not only target the mass market through slick, high-budget television documentaries and convincing pro-government news programs, but also reach into social media, with government-backed bloggers (such as Pavel Danilin) who flood message boards and other content portals to “blackout” any promotional efforts by the opposition. The meta-narrative continues to grow more and more elaborate, say many of the sources in the article. The article also quotes Robert Amsterdam, and makes a kind mention of this blog. More excerpts after the jump.

Excerpts from Brian Whitmore’s “Spinning the Kremlin“:

Under such a regime, government control of the media – particularly the broadcast media, which is almost entirely in the hands of the Kremlin – is acceptable because otherwise it would fall into the hands of oligarchs who would use control of the airwaves to weaken the state. Cracking down on NGOs and opposition activists is desirable because they are tools of the West and would, therefore, undermine Russia’s sovereignty. A strong executive is necessary to protect the country from foreign and domestic enemies.Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer who is part of the defense team for jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the author of a popular and respected blog on Russian affairs, summarized the Kremlin’s domestic message: “We are the best and the brightest, and we are surrounded.”Underlying all of this is the message that Russia is a force to be reckoned with after being victimized by the West throughout the 1990s, and – flush with energy wealth and the influence it buys – it can and will vigorously defend its interests.To that end, the Kremlin was quick to hire the Western public relations agency Ketchum in 2006, during Russia’s critical tenure at the helm of the Group of Eight (G-8) leading industrialized nations.A Ketchum executive at the time described the firm’s mandate as “not changing Russian policy, but helping on the presentational side” – lifting the veil on Western media techniques, logistics, and web materials. In a year when Russia was dogged by complaints about its aggressive energy policy, its G-8 chairmanship emerged as a solid, well-managed highlight.”The Kremlin’s principal intention at this time is to show a resurgent Russia in a multipolar world, a world in which Russia is confident,” says Steven Lock, who heads the Russia office for the Mmd public relations firm. The upcoming publicity storm likely to surround the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi is just one example, he notes, adding, “‘Brand Russia’ will be as sophisticated about promoting itself as Russian companies have become about promoting themselves.”In addition to promoting its selling points, the Kremlin is also sending a second message loud and clear: Russia has no qualms about playing rough with NATO, the European Union, and the United States when it suits its needs. And it feels no obligation to conform to Western standards of democracy and human rights. Recently, Russia even tried to turn the tables on the West with a proposal to establish an “Institute for Freedom and Democracy In Europe” to monitor human rights in the EU.“Don’t measure us. Don’t condemn us. Take your European Court and your OSCE and stop judging us. We define our own reality,” Amsterdam summarized the Kremlin’s rebranding strategy abroad. …Today’s news anchors on Russia’s state-controlled television channels are young, their outfits hip, the sets modern, and the production top-rate. Putin’s message may be a bit retro, but his medium is big, shiny, and high-tech. Analysts say the Kremlin has become frighteningly good at conjuring up its own version of reality and selling it to the Russian public – and, to an extent, the outside world – to serve its own political ends.”They have gotten slicker at it. You have a couple of new generations that have come to the fore who have learned, if you will, Western ways,” Ermarth says.A good example is a prime-time documentary aired on state-controlled Rossiya television on 30 September. The report, titled “barkhat.ru” – or “velvet.ru.” – alleged that the CIA was planning to overthrow the Kremlin elite with an Orange Revolution-style uprising in Russia.Russia Today, Moscow’s response to CNN (ITAR TASS)”To the West’s great pleasure, velvet revolutions have broken out over the course of the past five years throughout Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet space,” journalist Arkady Mamontov said ominously as he introduced the report. “Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan. The next goal – Moscow.”Mamontov’s slickly produced report alleges that the CIA is at the epicenter of a massive conspiracy involving opposition groups like Garry Kasparov’s Other Russia, pro-democracy youth organizations like Smena, NGOs like Freedom House, and the Western mass media to overthrow the Kremlin leadership.The report aired on the eve of Putin’s surprise 1 October announcement that he would lead the Unified Russia candidate list in December’s parliamentary elections, and would consider becoming prime minister if the pro-Kremlin party scored a resounding victory at the polls. It was the clearest indication yet that Putin intends to keep power after his presidential term expires.Commenting on Mamontov’s documentary in the newspaper Vremya novostei, television critic Kseniya Larina noted that as elections approach, a trend toward “brainwashing” by the state-controlled Russian media was “gaining speed.”…Back To The Future?Ermarth has seen this movie before. In the late 1970s, he and his colleagues at the CIA were deeply concerned about an increasingly confident and assertive Soviet Union which – for a time – appeared to be winning the global information war with the West.”In the late 70s we had a problem,” Ermarth said. “The Soviet Union was feeling its oats, believing that the trends…were running in its favor,” he said. “The US was in retreat around the world because of Vietnam and related things. The Soviets had reached a new peak in strategic power. They were making money hand over fist with oil and gas.”Ermarth said Moscow sought to “parlay this into political coin” by provoking divisions within the Western alliance, by making inroads into Africa, Latin America, and Asia, and by “sanctimonious beating up on Washington in the name of peace.”At the time, Kremlin ideologists argued that the global “correlation of forces” were on their side – and Moscow acted accordingly, with an aggressive foreign policy.A decade later, of course, the pretense was exposed as an illusion. Energy prices dropped sharply, exposing deep structural flaws in a Soviet command economy that was unable to meet basic consumer needs. Soviet citizens lost any semblance of faith in the moribund communist ideology. And the United States recovered from its post-Vietnam funk.”We had programs of various kinds to grapple with that, and it wasn’t hard. Mostly because so much of the audience we were talking to in Western and Eastern Europe was on our side anyway,” Ermarth says.Now, he adds, the United States and its allies have to “do battle” with Russia’s current rebranding trend, by “poking holes in the narratives where it deserves that. Where the narrative is false. Where the narrative is dangerously pretentious.”But, Ermarth says, in contrast to the Cold War – when the Soviet Union was at the center of the West’s foreign-policy universe – Washington is currently devoting precious few resources to combating Moscow’s information offensive.”In order to have a coherent policy for dealing with this meta-narrative, you’ve got to have a comprehensive, coherent understanding [of it],” Ermarth said. “And I would say we haven’t invested enough in building that understanding to know how to do this. Just standing up and saying the Russians are bullies on oil and gas, and they’re just trying to pull our chain on ballistic missile defense, is not adequate.”