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From Russia, with Spin

Putin's government tries to burnish its image in the West.

12:00 AM, May 10, 2006 • By IGOR KHRESTIN
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AFTER THE FINANCIAL CRASH of 1998 and the political disintegration of president Boris Yeltsin, the question in foreign policy circles was, "Who lost Russia?"

The answer was complicated. House Republicans first blamed Al Gore and the White House Russia hands for an unquestioning commitment to Yeltsin and his often-dubious policy decisions. Subsequent House hearings took the International Monetary Fund to task for unscrupulously doling out massive loans that were hastily expropriated by a band of oligarchs and the Kremlin elite (often perceived as one and the same). House majority leader Dick Armey thundered that Russia was "a looted and bankrupt zone of nuclearized anarchy," while Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urged calm and to "bear in mind that Russia is not a watch or a set of keys that can be misplaced."

A few years later, Russia was found--restored to its former graces by President Putin's unwavering public support for the United States in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy report gushed that the two countries were "increasingly united by common values. Russia is in the midst of a hopeful transition, reaching for its democratic future and a partner in the war on terror."

Neither was Russia "a bankrupt zone" any longer. Bolstered by the rise of energy prices, the Russian economy rebounded under Putin's leadership, rendering the perceived handouts from the West a thing of the past. Since 2000, Russia hasn't borrowed a penny from the IMF and is ahead of schedule to repay its remaining debt obligation. Moreover, in a recent meeting of the G-8 finance ministers, Russia expressed willingness to clear the debts of the world's 16 poorest nations, totaling some $700 million. Russia's Stabilization Fund, a rainy-day account accrued from windfall oil profits, stands at $70 billion.

BUT DESPITE THE ECONOMIC RENAISSANCE and the vigorous and popularly-adored president (Putin's approval rating has been firmly fixed at around 70 percent), what was found seems lost again. While at a conference in Lithuania last week, Vice President Cheney declared openly that "in Russia today, opponents of reform are seeking to reverse the gains of the last decade."

The new concern centers around consolidation of power in the Kremlin, increasing pressure on the civil society sector, and violations of human rights in Chechnya. None of which is to mention Russia's emboldened foreign policy, from its perceived meddling in Ukraine's 2004 elections to its relations with Iran to the courting of Hamas. Washington Post reporter Anne Applebaum, joined by Putin's former economic adviser Andrei Illarionov, recently wondered whether or not Russia even belongs in the G-8 at all?

Just as criticism of Al Gore's Russia policy gave ammunition to the Republican party in the 2000 elections, "Who lost Russia--Redux" is bound to become an issue when President Bush steps down in two years. Senator John McCain, has already joined the chorus of critics, noting last Sunday on Face the Nation that "there has been a steady retrogression and a sort of an effort to restore the old Soviet empire."

Because until recently, White House criticism of Russia was infrequent and often muted, the Kremlin may have been lulled into a sense of false security over the future of bilateral relations. But now the Russian administration realizes that it has a glaring image problem which needs to be addressed.

In 2005 the Russian government launched the English-language television network, "Russia Today," which provides Western viewers with updated information directly from the source. There is even talk of expanding the network to the Arab-speaking market.

Ketchum, a U.S. public relations outfit, has been charged with navigating Russia through the communications challenges, especially prior to the important July G-8 meeting. With no discernable Russian lobby, the Kremlin is also revamping the Russia-U.S. Business Council to combat the authoritarian image of the country and its leadership.

Of course, the Kremlin is not alone in combating Russia's negative image. Pro-Kremlin journalists and analysts have battled their U.S. counterparts over Russia's anti-democratic tilt. Several months ago, the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations Task Force published a report titled "Russia's Wrong Direction: What the United States Can and Should Do."