The cosmetics of Kremlin PR

Putin's new media friendliness is being questioned by some who see it as window dressing.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As Russia works to raise the sunken submarine Kursk, the Kremlin is launching an effort to salvage its image abroad.

In recent months the government has taken steps intended to show a more open, sincere, and liberal face, at least toward the international press.

Most Russian experts question the depth and significance of the new information policy, as the Kremlin calls it, and they point out that official control of journalists covering the war in Chechnya has grown even tighter.

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But some observers say the Kremlin's old reflexes of stonewalling, railing against anti-Moscow prejudice, and blaming the messenger are indeed giving way to more sophisticated, Western-style media-management techniques.

"This policy is aimed at correcting public relations blunders of the past," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information, which publishes guides to Russian government structure. "In particular, President Vladimir Putin's behavior during the Kursk tragedy last year was a real black eye."

The most dismal hour of Mr. Putin's presidency came when the Kursk, pride of the Russian nuclear fleet, sank during Arctic war games last August, killing its 118-member crew. The Russian president hid from the media at a Black Sea resort for nearly a week while his subordinates fumbled, blustered, and lied to the public about the disaster.

A year later, the Kremlin seems determined that the operation to raise the stricken ship will show the Russian authorities in a fully competent, open and in-charge posture. A Kremlin-financed website (www.strana.ru) now carries a news channel, updated daily in English and Russian, about the Kursk operation. The Russian government has arranged for hundreds of journalists to visit the Barents Sea site of the Kursk's sinking, and has promised full information when the submarine is raised in September.

Critics say the increased flow of Kremlin-supplied news actually boils down to less truth. "What we see is more activity, not more information," says Alexander Konovalov, director of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "Journalists go up there to the Arctic, but all they can do is look at the ocean and perhaps talk by phone with a naval officer. All the questions we had about the sinking of the Kursk and the efforts to recover it remain unanswered. These supposed changes are purely cosmetic."

Indeed, a visit by foreign journalists to the sprawling Sevmash naval ship -yard in Severodvinsk this week produced no answers to lingering doubts about the safety of the Kursk salvage operation. The Kremlin-organized trip to the top-secret far-northern military shipyard, to view equipment being built for the salvaging, did bring out the local governor, the Sevmash director, a naval official and assorted engineers, but all shied away from discussing more than a few technical points.

Still, enthusiasts of the new policy say it is real, and gradually taking hold.

"Our leaders recognize that openness is a necessary attribute of a democratic society, and you can see it being introduced step-by-step," says Vadim Malkin, information director of the Strana.ru website, which also offers a daily English-language on-line news magazine that digests Russian affairs from the Kremlin viewpoint.

Earlier this month Putin allowed the first fully open Kremlin press conference in more than six years. For almost two hours, Putin joked, reminisced, and answered questions for 500 Russian and foreign journalists.

Among other things, Putin promised that Russia's state-owned RTR television network will soon begin Russian-language broadcasts of Euronews, the European news channel, for several hours daily.

When a Russian Tu-154 airliner crashed last month in Siberia, with the loss of 145 lives, the Kremlin immediately announced that Putin was "in his office and following events closely." Within two hours of the accident, Putin appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate the causes and make the findings public.

The Kremlin's new face is the handiwork of Sergei Yastrzhemsky, an urbane former diplomat who previously managed the information flow from the conflict-wracked Russian region of Chechnya. He was so successful at controlling journalistic access and spinning the often disastrous news from the war zone, that Putin made him the Kremlin's information czar earlier this year.

"Yastrzhemsky has brought a whole new style," says Mr. Malkin. "Now you can ask your questions and receive answers."

Critics, who include many journalists, are less enthusiastic. Many are still angry over what they saw as a Kremlin-orchestrated takeover of the independent television network NTV.

"In the past year, the authorities have squeezed out alternative sources of news, and so they are acting a lot more confident," says Lyudmila Telen, a political journalist and deputy director of the weekly Moskovskiye Novosti. "In effect, they are using modern PR techniques to burnish Russia's image abroad and improve the appearance of state-run news. But if you want a spectrum of views and critical information, you must turn to the dwindling number of small, independent news outlets."

Regarding the 22-month-old war in Chechnya, the Kremlin is not even making an effort to appear more open. Moscow has kept tight control over journalists trying to cover the conflict from its outset, and last week the Russian military announced sweeping new restrictions that prohibit any reporter from visiting the region unless accompanied at all times by a military press officer.

"The human rights situation in Chechnya is growing more critical by the day, but it is receiving less attention," says Sergei Grigoryants, a Soviet-era dissident who heads the Glasnost Foundation, an independent media watchdog. "There you see the truth about the new information policy," he says. "If the Kremlin doesn't want some kind of news to be reported, it won't be."

Some Russian journalists see in the new policy a return to the past. Says Sergei Ivanenko, a leader of the liberal Yabloko Party and member of the State Duma's information committee: "That's the old Soviet style, to make the foreign journalist feel like he has a special relationship with power." For Russian journalists, he says, "it is getting harder than ever to work normally. The rule nowadays is that freedom of speech is permitted, just never in prime time."

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