Monday, July 1, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Kremlin Making Russia into a Potemkin Village for the World, Polish Writer Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 1 – The Kremlin is building yet another “Potemkin Village,” this time not limited to a few rural spots or erected to impress its own ruler but instead covering the whole country and designed to impress the entire world, a strategy that a Polish writer says is unlikely to work as Russia’s current rulers hope but one that could ultimately lead to genuine changes.

            In an essay in Warsaw’s “Nowa Europa Wschodnia,” Zeimowit Szczerek says that the Kremlin is seeking a new image for the country less in order to make its own people happy but to “improve the numbers of the country at rating agencies and broaden the sphere of influence of its ‘soft power’” (,postapokaliptyczny_wizerunek_rosji.html; in Russian translation at

            There is “a rational kernel” in such efforts, the commentator says, because “earlier Moscow only criticized the world or sought to remark it” according to its own terms.  “The fruits of such actions, especially among its nearest neighbors,” have been negative, pushing them away from Russia at ever more rapid rates.

            Moreover, that approach has had “weak results” more generally, leading many further away to conclude that Russia is “an unreliable state which plays by international rules only when it wants to and will at any moment violate them.  In a word, Russia has acquired the image of an immature and inconsistent country.”

At the present time Moscow’s “sphere of influence” as far as soft power is concerned is not so large, Szczerek writes. He suggests it includes Serbia, the Republika Serbska in Bosnia, Northern Kosovo, Greece, Cyprus, Eastern Ukraine, Belarus and “in part,” Central Asia and the Caucasus -- as well as a few countries further away still “romantically inclined” to view Russia as a continuation of the USSR.

            But even in these places, the Polish commentator argues, far from everyone has a good opinion of Russia, and even many of those who profess to have one do so less from conviction than because they are angry at Brussels or Washington or have few good alternatives.

That has not stopped the Russian government from spending a great deal of money on soft power efforts.  In 2005, Moscow established the “Russia Today” television channel, first in English and since then in Spanish and Arabic as well, to promote “a ‘balanced’ image of the country.”

But according to Szczerek, this channel had hardly begun its work when the Russian invasion of Georgia undercut its possibilities.  It continues to function, however, shortening its name to “RT,” “inviting famous persons to work,” and “treating in a unique way the term ‘independent journalism.’”

            That has been true of Moscow’s broader efforts in this regard, the Polish writer says. President Vladimir Putin has pressed his country’s diplomats “to improve the image of the country abroad” but hasn’t been able to change the boorish behavior of Russian officials, whose corruption and attitudes undercut much of what the Kremlin leader would like to achieve.

            In short, “government organs give out the impression that they are successfully dealing with their constitutional role and work for the good of their citizens, but in fact everything is just the opposite; and ever more often the impression is created that the Russian state is acting against the interests of Russians.”

            All of Putin’s efforts at “’the improvement of the image of Russia’” recall what Soviet officials used to do when an important visitor was coming: they would throw on a coat of paint along his or her route but do nothing otherwise to improve those buildings or do anything at all to those on other streets – or the even earlier efforts of Prince Potemkin with his famous villages.

            Szczerek argues that “Russia can send a thousand signals to the world that it is a wonderful country, but what will that lead to if it discredits these signals by a single unwise gesture or some death in mysterious circumstances which will receive broad coverage in the mass media?”

            “Russians understand,” he continues, “that a good image will help bring in a flood of investments,” but then they do things like spending in advance of an international meeting a billion dollars on a bridge in Vladivostok where only 5,000 people live on the other side and make themselves look unserious, to put it at charitably.

                And sometimes the Russians themselves acknowledge that unfortunate reality.  One deputy economic development minister admitted before Moscow in January 2013 signed an agreement with Goldman Sachs to help Russia develop contacts with investors that “Russia doesn’t know how this is done.”

            Nonetheless, “Moscow can continue its attempts to improve its image despite everything as other countries which are not following along the path of the standards of the Western world.” But “Russia does not have the delights of Brazil, the energy of India or the hopefulness of China.”  And “sooner or later,” that will become obvious.

            Such efforts, however, could have a positive outcome and lead Russia toward Western standards, Szczerek says. “The very fact that the Kremlin continues to put on this spectacle of democracy for it and spend millions of dollars on it leads one to hope that some time that will happen.”

            But for that to happen, the Polish writer concludes the West will have to remain attractive to Russia’s leaders and Russia’s people, who in that case “will continue their attempts to change Russia from below.”


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