Thursday, May 23, 2013

Russia's "popularity" in the West

Someone sent me a piece from The Moscow Times today, published earlier this week. The title - "Kremlin Grapples With Series of PR Disasters" - might be misleading, since the focus of the article is not on the government's PR issues at home, but rather about the country's unpopularity around the world (that is, the country as a whole, and not just the current government's specific policies or the popularity levels of the leadership -- although, those are certainly interrelated).

The article refers to the 2012 Transatlantic Trends survey, emphasizing the declining popularity of Russia in the West. Although I don't think that opinion polls can be truly representative of a country's public diplomacy success, let alone of its "soft power", they can - over a long period of time - provide an insight into the spikes of popularity (and unpopularity) of certain foreign policies of governments, as well as perceived threats from them.

Chart from Key Findings of the 2012 Transatlantic Trends Survey.

I think the latter point is most noteworthy. In the end of the piece, there is an excellent quote from Vyacheslav Nikonov, State Duma deputy and the head of the Russkiy Mir Foundation:
"There is no problem with the way Russia is viewed in most countries." [...] "Only in the West is the image of Russia biased. I believe it has been like that for at least five centuries."
"The only two episodes when the West viewed Russia positively were in 1917 and 1991, when Russia was disintegrating," Nikonov said. "The current view of Russia has become a part of the West's cultural code and I doubt it can be changed." 
So should the Russians (or any others) simply give up on the attempt to change these deeply-ingrained attitudes and negative perceptions?

That would be wrong. But pumping money into supposed public diplomacy projects such as Russia Today or covert PR campaigns like the one by Ketchum described in the article wouldn't help much either. On the contrary, credibility and trust must lie in the foundation of such efforts. And although cultural diplomacy and education can play an important role in bringing about trust, sprinkling unfriendly foreign policies with pretty cultural performances or educational centers - such as China's Confucius Institutes that the piece refers to - is not the answer, either.

A lot of it is still about the perception of threat: whether real or imagined. That's what countries need to be working on, especially the likes of Russia and China, which are currently posing a perceived "threat" to the West. Long-term, sustained public diplomacy of deed - then - can provide the answer. Yet, that takes effort and requires cooperation from all sides (i.e. "the West", as well). More importantly, it is politically dangerous at home, especially when nationalistic and inward-looking sentiments prevail.

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