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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 / August 1, 2001



SEVERODVINSK, RUSSIA

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

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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.

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.

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