Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Khodorkovsky vs. Kremlin

Despite all the Christmas-related chaos of the past week, I've been trying to keep up - at least, somewhat - with the news, and the one issue that I keep stumbling upon is the Khodorkovsky trial. I just spent more than an hour reading and watching the coverage by various "Western" media, in the hope of formulating some sort of a response or coherent position on the issue. But then, I decided I should just highlight the information battle aspect of this whole issue, which in itself is the story here : Russia's public diplomacy vs. Khodorkosvky's personal PR (and, most certainly, political ambitions).

This is how most of the coverage is framed in the West:

Another piece by EuroNews is even more telling, describing the story as "Kafka-esque" and having "played out with all the drama of a Cold War thriller." (No comment. Seriously...)

Well, I can't really blame the "Western" media, since the Russian authorities are, themselves, responsible for being unable to provide an adequate response given this public diplomacy "crisis". Interestingly enough, as I was working on my research on Russian PD this past semester, the issues of corruption and human rights kept coming up as Russia's most vulnerable Achilles' Heel (there are many more, it's just that these are issues that are constantly on the table) in terms of its perceived image abroad. Not that they didn't know. And now, watching this issue unfold, and the constant allusion to "Russia's totalitarian past", I am having hard time even trying to identify the actual party to blame for bringing up Cold War parallels.

Please note, here I am not referring to the actual trial process within Russia (my familiarity with the details of the case, as well as the specifics of Russia's legal system are far too insufficient for making any fully informed judgments), but rather to the way its portrayal is mismanaged by the Russian authorities. One of the fundamental principles of cross-cultural communication, and public diplomacy in particular, is listening in order to be able to formulate and frame the desired message in a culturally applicable and resonant way. Another basic principle (though often too easily dismissed/forgotten by most international actors) is "public diplomacy by deed", demonstrating that it's not just talk, but also involves real actions and responsibilities.

Khodorkovsky in 1992. Photo courtesy of New York Times.

The Kremlin failed in both of these cases. Knowing, very well, how much this "corruption-and-human-rights" discourse matters for the Western audience (public and political, alike) and having the President himself make these issues as priority objectives to be dealt with, the authorities still decided to go with the trials for the second time. Seemingly, there was also very little effort to effectively put out sufficient information to represent the prosecutors' viewpoint. I don't even want to begin talking about Putin's comments - a show of personal arrogance, nothing more - while he could have just been more diplomatic under the circumstances (he should really start learning from Medvedev!). What is more, the special police have been detaining protesters in broad daylight, and more importantly, in front of the international media, which, given the above-mentioned references to Kafka and the "intelligentsia", provide perfect grounds for non-stated allusions to events such as the Prague Spring.

The problem is, it's not Prague (neither is it "spring," for that matter). And most certainly, Khodorkovsky, who is being portrayed as a saint, currently repenting his past vices, should be viewed in a more realistic light, too. Consider this excerpt from a New York Times editorial:
Mr. Khodorkovsky is no paragon of virtue. He made his fortune through political connections and suspect deals in the early days of Russian capitalism. Later though, as the leader of the private oil conglomerate Yukos, he began to understand that transparency was good for business. He also became an advocate of political reform — and a bankroller of reform causes and candidates — thereby drawing Mr. Putin’s enmity.
(In other words, he had a sudden and unexpected epiphany.)

Obviously, the argument on this side is much better framed (and delivered!) by his supporters, and most prominently, by his son. Two days ago, I happened to be watching CNN as it showed the following:

Perfect English. Handsome young man. Speaking from New York. (More than half of the audience already bought it. Guaranteed!)

Emotive. Very culturally appropriate, and most certainly, politically resonant. Oh, and this side does have money - more money willing to spend on the issue than Kremlin seems to be. At the moment, at least. And what does Kremlin do? The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sends out a spokesman to read out a statement - in the freezing cold - which later gets narrowed down to something along the lines of "Russia tells the West to mind its own business." To provide some context, they put out a small report on Russia Today TV, which, although provides an outlet for the official perspective, lacks audience and credibility, both so vital in this age.

Seems like Kremlin is set to lose this PR battle, but only to a small extent: the issue will remain a stain on Russian-American relations, for example, and yet Washington is reluctant to be making strong statements on the matter (so far, at least). And rightly so. Russia is big country (i.e. democracy, Western-style, might actually tear it apart), the relationship is at a "crossroads" of some sorts, and a lot of thinking should be done before it is all risked for someone like Khodorkovsky. Especially in this case, since there can be no guarantee that he will bring anything better for Russia (or for the West, for that matter) if he (or his supported candidates) actually get to power (remember the joke!). I would truly want to believe that decision-makers abroad understand that.

Instead, the focus - both in Russia and elsewhere - should be on the actual fairness of the system. I am very glad to see BBC's collection of views on the issue from Russians themselves. A quick look shows that there seems to be a general agreement on Khodorkovsky's dark past. Yet, as one reader put it:
It is not a bad thing that Khodorkovsky is in jail. But it is a bad thing that others like him are not in jail.

Might be difficult to change, but that is the problem. Obviously, the Western media beg to differ. After all, that won't sell.


  1. Very savvy stuff you've written. Good. The Kremlin has only two effective and self-respecting choices -- America doesn't need the second for itself, so go figure that variable when you have time -- to be either as arrogant as it is able to inside its ideological limits -- one of the problems, Russia is lacking an ideology since the end of the Cold War (another variable) -- or completely submit to the Western PR machine, which it must not, the Leningrad siege was bad enough, and these are virtual color coded sieges: remember Putin, sardonically: "So now we need a blue revolution, a yellow one, all the colors." Now, re: you're on-target point about the geographical largeness of Russia. Well taken.

    The Western PR offensives against Russia are always color revolutions in process, and cannot be fought successfully by the Kremlin by PR-ing back at the West. And this is a color revolution PR, and it's permanent. Go figure.

  2. well, Kremlin's choice - since 1991 - has been three ways: (1) embrace the West (and lose many of the things Russia has stood for, for centuries - be it good or bad), (2) remain hostile and go its own way, or (3)try and balance both seemingly conflicting forces, somehow. If you ask me, balancing is the best choice of the three - especially given the fact that on the global scene Russia cannot still be a leading superpower (not anymore, or not yet, at least). However, naturally, that balance often tends to go in one way or the other. I mean, there cannot be perfect equilibrium.

    I see Khodorkovsky's case in a similar light. The Russian leaders had been trying to make overtures to the West, because they simply HAVE to, given the globalized nature of the economy and the needs of their huge country. Yet, they cannot afford giving up on the basics that have kept the country together, no matter how "authoritarian".

    As for the siege, that can also be partially true. And yet, I think they know well that it's all talk and no action. All states are rational actors in the end of the day, and yes, it is in the West's rational interests to maintain a decent relationship with Russia (just as it is in Russia's interests, too). Many are still convinced that the West "won" the Cold War solely through its "public diplomacy", and yet, it was Russia's miscalculation in terms of tolerable freedoms that lied at its core. I think that unlike other countries, the Russians learned this lesson well. No matter how sad, WESTERN-STYLE democracy (and that should be highlighted and underlined) can never truly be an option in our part of the world. Not in several hundred years, at least..