Spinning Russia and Telenor

(The Moscow Times, June 24, 2009)

By William Dunkerley

When U.S. President Barack Obama first met President Dmitry Medvedev in April, almost two-thirds of Americans were thinking negative thoughts about Russia. Now, less than two weeks away from Obama's meeting with Medvedev in Moscow, the Kremlin is showing new concern about Russia's image abroad. Indeed, the importance of external PR has been elevated by making it a responsibility of presidential chief of staff Sergei Naryshkin.

What can Naryshkin possibly do to change the United States' negative views of Russia? Is simply putting a better spin on things really going to change anyone's mind about anything?

The answer is that it just might -- if it is done correctly. For many years I have studied the ups and downs of U.S. attitudes toward Russia, and what I found is that there seems to be a responsive relationship between attitudinal change and three external factors: leadership initiatives, geopolitical events and negative PR attacks.

In early 2001, Russia was viewed favorably by just over 50 percent of Americans. Then, following Sept. 11 and then-President Vladimir Putin's demonstrable overtures of support for the United States, Russia's favorability rating jumped to 66 percent. But a leadership initiative can influence opinions negatively, too. Take for example President Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" speech of 1983. Before the speech, the favorable rating of the Soviet Union had been riding just over 20 percent. Following that speech, only 8 percent of Americans maintained a favorable opinion. It took four long years before opinions rebounded.

In terms of geopolitical events, the collapse of the Soviet Union caused an upward spike in favorable opinion to 66 percent. The 1999 Kosovo conflict caused a sharp decline to 33 percent.

The impact of negative PR attacks can be seen in the past several years. There was a volley of assaults, most notably involving the murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the poisoning death in London of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko and the Georgia war in August. These events resulted in the drop of Russia's favorability rating from 58 percent in 2006 to a low of 40 percent in January.

Regarding the PR impact of the Russia-Georgia war, the administration of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili engaged a Western PR firm to help manage the event. That may explain in part why the headline "Russia Invades Georgia" predominated, while "Georgia Invades South Ossetia" got little play.

It's not only the Kremlin that falls victim to PR assaults. It was about three years ago that Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor was subjected to a negative PR campaign. On a single day, three major Russian newspapers ran stories alleging that Telenor was part of a NATO plot against Russia. The stories each had a slightly different slant and were bylined by three different journalists, but one of the names was strikingly similar to the name of an executive of Telenor's PR firm. Perhaps this was a mere coincidence, but this could have also been an attempt to add insult to injury.

Naryshkin has his work cut out for him in trying to improve Russia's image abroad. The latest Telenor scandal underscores this big challenge. On Friday, federal court marshals ordered the state to auction off Telenor's 26.6 percent stake in VimpelCom, which means that Telenor could lose its shares in the Russian telecommunications company. The proceeds of the auction will be used to pay off a $1.7 billion fine levied against Telenor for blocking VimpelCom's expansion in Ukraine after a little-known minority shareholder filed a lawsuit seeking damages.

The action by Russia's court marshals has been viewed by most foreign investors as a violation of investor rights. It is not clear how Naryshkin will be able to put a positive spin on this a heavy-handed government tactic. Perhaps he can get Medvedev to use a "leadership initiative" to turn around this latest PR disaster.