This June I had the pleasure of once again attending and speaking at the World Russia Forum. The event now happens twice a year, in Washington DC and Moscow, and is intended to draw together Russian and American experts, academics, journalists, and policy-makers in an effort to improve relations between these two nations. An account of it, and the subsequent reception at the Russian Embassy to mark Russia Day, follows below:
It was raining with near monsoonal intensity when I disembarked off the train*. I have no complaints; these downpours dispel the sultry oppressiveness inherent to a city originally built on swampland, so far as I was concerned the more rain the merrier.
The Qataris sure know how to get their message out!
Four of the WRF’s speakers in the hotel dining room. From left to right: Pamela (Patrick’s wife); Martin Sieff; Patrick Armstrong; William Dunkerley; your humble servant.
From farther to nearest: Patrick Armstrong, Martin Sieff, Edward Lozansky, Nicolai Petro, and William Dunkerley (plus Sergey Markedonov, but he was absent when the photo above was taken). Lozansky, the organizer and financier of the World Russia Forums, is giving the keynote speech.
Each of us gave a 5-10 minute presentation on what we saw as the problems of – and possible solutions to – strained relations between Russia and the US. Common themes included the malevolent roles of aggrieved oligarchs (like Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky); the lack of economic ties making Russia a convenient punch-bug (can’t offend your Chinese bankers or Saudi oilmen too much); the weakness and lethargy of the Kremlin’s PR, as expressed in its slow – and at times, non-existent – response to media stories that portray it in a bad light.
Then we talked about possible solutions. Patrick Armstrong, for instance, has long pushed for creating a list of “Russia memes” that are commonly accepted as fact in the media but have no factual basis (e.g. Putin’s billions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts, that sort of thing). Martin Sieff stresses that responses have to be very quick, since a rule of thumb in the media is that as soon as the first 30 minutes pass, the story becomes set, no matter its truth value. It would be a good idea to combine these two points in the form of a PR team checking stories in the Western media against a handbook of these “Russia memes” and sending out corrections, complaints, letters to the editor, etc. as appropriate.
The main problem is, of course, implementation. Both Nicolai Petro and William Dunkerley raised this issue, as an academic and a media expert, respectively. Contrary to what has been scribbled about this group in some corners of the Internet, it is not affiliated with the Kremlin nor does it even have its official support; it is the product of a private American citizen’s personal initiative and enthusiasm. This translates into a frustrating reality in which a lot of good ideas are generated in these meetings but all too many of them are never followed through for a lack of official coordination, financial, or official support. This is why I can only laugh when the likes of Lucas start raving about Kremlin-paid “agents of influence” hiding beneath every bed and whatnot. The banal reality is that Russia is not very competent at PR (unlike Israel or Saakashvili’s Georgia), and what money it does give out typically goes to big, disinterested firms like Ketchum that eke out a couple of “pro-Russian” articles for The Huffington Post in exchange for millions of dollars.
My own speech, naturally, focused on The Russian Spectrum. I have already explained why that project is a great idea for improving Russia’s image, so I won’t bother doing so again.
William Dunkerley had the funniest and most interactive presentation.
After that there were questions from the audience and lively discussions. Here are a few observations:
Tons of journalists from Voice of America, some from Voice of Russia including its new US bureau chief. None from RIA (there might have been a couple but I didn’t run into them). Some representatives of Russia/America business forums, PR and “knowledge transfer agencies,” etc.
A former bureaucrat who mentioned that there is already a program that translates foreign media into English. (Those of you subscribing to the JRL will have come across some of their translations). The only problem with it? Unlike Russia’s Inosmi, which is free, only certain government employees and private businesses willing to fork over many thousands of dollars per year can have access to it – even though it’s funded by the American taxpayer. He said he’d inquire about opening it up to the general public, but the chances of success are minimal for obvious reasons. If the bureaucracies that be were interested in public access, then the public would already have access.
A senior editor at The American Conservative. Knows Ron Unz, pro-Ron Paul, libertarian, White Russian – also anti-Putin, and supports Magnitsky Act, but otherwise doesn’t want confrontation with Russia specifically. If China and Saudi Arabia aren’t being confronted, both states with far worse human rights records, then why on earth should Russia be confronted? This outlook I suppose is all quite consistent with libertarian, minimal state/constitutional rights/isolationist principles).
A senior member of a family values organization from the Mid-West. Described how he went from thinking of Russia as an atheist evil empire type of place to viewing it as the modern equivalent of the kingdom of Prester John (I do exaggerate, of course, but that’s the gist of it), to the extent that the next major summit of his organization is going to be taking place in Moscow. This stands to reason, as conservatives in the American heartland are increasingly discovering that in many if not all respects ordinary Russians and even the Russian government shares their values.
One lady sewed together some peace rugs for the UN and treated us all to a 15 monologue about it. Absolutely fascinating.
After that I visited the Newseum, a museum about the news. Although its basically a shrine to the Mainstream, and got anodyne at times, there were nonetheless a lot of fun things to see there. My favorite section was the one with the ancient books and historical articles/editorials/ads (“Spanish Indian woman that can do all sorts of of Houshold Work with her Boy about half a Year old: To be sold Inquire of Mr. William ManBrasier in Dock-square, Boston” – yes, the world sure has changed quite a bit).
Above is a photo of a Nezavisimaya Gazeta editorial or op-ed or whatever from immediately after the abortive 1991 coup attempt: “The bloody political dealings of these “S.O.B.’s were just going on and on. We got tired of being afraid. This is why the coup failed.” No-holds barred approach of the hero journalist!
Speaking of “hero journalists“… Now THAT is a hero journalist! Yulia Latynina? I’m afraid having a crazy hairdo and the hots for our favorite Georgian tie-muncher doesn’t qualify.
JUST WHAT IS THIS?! I suppose it will now be impossible for me to deny being a Kremlin flunky ever again.
Protests at the Embassy. One of the guys had the placard, “Putin eats babies.” Supporters of Pussy Riot chanted slogans next to a burqa-covered woman with a Syrian flag. Most unlikely allies…
The Embassy itself was a big, square, solid, monumental structure. Apparently it was built by Soviet laborers specifically imported for the task so that the NSA people wouldn’t get a chance to lay any bugs. They did try to remedy the situation by digging a tunnel under the Embassy, but the plan was foiled thanks to FBI turncoat Robert Hanssen.
They sure know how to throw a party. The Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Sergey Kislyak gave the keynote speech. As expected with such events, the focus was mostly on networking – and the big businessmen, professional politicos, and military attaches who were generously represented there were out of my league as far as practical matters are concerned. Still, I had a lot of fun there, along with the other Forum members invited to the reception.
* Yes, you read that right. I took a train all the way to DC from San Francisco, and stopped by at many of the cities in between. I will be posting an account of this journey at the other blog.