BBC reporter and Blair aide hired to add gloss to Putin's reputation

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The Independent Online

The Kremlin has hired one of Downing Street's best-known spin doctors and one of the BBC's most respected former Moscow correspondents to help it weather a storm of criticism over its human rights record as it prepares to host the G8 summit in two week's time.

Turning its back on the infamous Soviet approach to the Western media - a mixture of "no comment", censorship, and obstruction - Moscow has signed a multimillion-pound contract with New York-based PR company Ketchum. Nobody is prepared to say how much the Kremlin has paid for the services of a company that has advised some of America's biggest corporate names in the past, but it is thought that the figure is close to £4m.

Tim Allan, a Downing Street protégé of Alastair Campbell, is part of the Ketchum team as is Angus Roxburgh, the BBC's man in Moscow in the 1990s. "When I was here during glasnost they were really opening up ... It hugely improved Russia's image," Mr Roxburgh said. "But recently Russia has appeared to be sinking into itself. What we have been doing is urging them to open up again."

Ketchum has up to 50 spin doctors and media specialists working round the clock in nine countries to ensure that at the end of this year people shed their stereotypical image of Russia as a bellicose country in which bears roam the streets and the Kalashnikov is mightier than the pen. The company has its work cut out, though Russia's moment in the limelight is also an opportunity for its critics to strike and Moscow does not want its moment spoilt by what it sees as Russophobes. It is the first time Moscow has chaired the G8 and it sees this year and the showcase summit in St Petersburg as an opportunity to show the world it is a confident yet reasonable power after the chaos of the 1990s.

Several US senators and human rights groups see things differently. They believe Russia should not be in the club of the world's richest industrial nations at all. Their greatest concern is about Russian democracy. Western critics allege that President Vladimir Putin has used the past six years to roll back the gains of the 1990s in favour of authoritarianism. The broadcast media is little more than a Kremlin mouthpiece, it is claimed, while any political opposition is starved of publicity, harassed, and sometimes jailed.

It is charged that Mr Putin has used his own "war on terror" - with Chechen militants - to push through legislation that appears to give people less say in their affairs, such as his decision to abolish direct elections for regional governors in favour of direct appointments by the Kremlin.

Russia's critics say the world's largest country is a prime example of " managed democracy". It looks like a democracy, they say, but in reality someone - the Kremlin - is pulling all the strings.

Ketchum says it is not ashamed to be representing the Kremlin. Peter Guilford, the director of GPlus, a Ketchum affiliate that is working closely on the contract, said: "Journalists have a right to say what they like about Russia but Russia has the right to be heard too."

Why Russian democracy needs some spin

* MEDIA CONTROL

Large swaths of the media are directly or indirectly controlled by the Kremlin and turn out a one-view-fits-all style of programming. The Kremlin's hand is particularly noticeable in TV news bulletins, though newspapers remain much freer.

* FUEL AS A WEAPON

Russia stands accused of using its energy reserves to bully and influence close neighbours. Its state-controlled energy behemoth Gazprom cut off gas supplies to Ukraine at the beginning of this year for a few days, raising European fears of over-dependence on Moscow.

* MANAGED DEMOCRACY

Critics claim Mr Putin is running a skin-deep form of democracy. They point to the fact that his United Russia Party tolerates no serious political opposition; to his tighter regulation of foreign non-governmental organisations, and to the fact that he has abolished direct elections for regional governors in favour of a Kremlin-backed appointments system.

* THE KHODORKOVSKY FACTOR

Once Russia's richest man, critics allege that the infamous case of the oligarch and oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a worrying sign of the times. Khodorkovsky is languishing in a remote prison near Russia's border with China after being jailed for eight years and stripped of most of his wealth. The Kremlin said that he was a fraudster; his supporters said that he was jailed for daring to oppose Mr Putin.

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