'Dictator' Putin getting a makeover

Kremlin woos foreign journalists in attempt to prove to the rest of the world that their President is not a totalitarian
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The Independent Online

The Kremlin is engaged in an all-out and urgent effort to improve the international image of Russia and its President, Vladimir Putin, before he embarks on his second term.

Russian officials are concerned that while Mr Putin enjoys record ratings at home, there are many negatives weighing on his image abroad that threaten Russia's effectiveness on the world stage. The gravest in their view is the perception that Mr Putin represents a rush back to Soviet-style totalitarianism. Worried officials held what was described as a "brain-storming" session a few weeks ago to find strategies that could help counter the view of Mr Putin as a budding dictator.

The Kremlin appears to be genuinely taken aback by the growing disaster that is Mr Putin's image abroad. Both administration officials and Russian journalists cannot quite comprehend how the Putin they know and write about has come to diverge so sharply from the one depicted in the Western media. They find it hard to appreciate that what plays well at home often creates a quite opposite impression abroad. The hard line taken by Mr Putin over Chechen separatism, for example, is popular in Russia, while it is condemned as ruthless and short-sighted abroad.

The enforced exile of several "oligarchs" and the continued imprisonment without trial of Sergei Khodorkovsky, former head of the Yukos oil company, are applauded by many Russians, who see these super-rich individuals as thieves and parasites. They do not realise that abroad their treatment looks more like political persecution, laced with anti-semitism, as most of the targets have been Jews.

The "all Putin all the time" newscasts on state-owned channels and the closure of independent television stations and is greeted with equanimity in Russia. Many argue that the independent channels were closed not for political reasons, but because they made hopeless losses. They say the state channels are far more diverse in their content than they were in even late Soviet times, and that any television monopoly is compensated for by the plethora of radio stations, newspapers and magazines of all varieties and views.

Among the first tangible results of the Kremlin "summit" was a series of visits for foreign reporters that were designed to show "the real Russia" - not just the showcases of Moscow and St Petersburg, but parts of the far-flung provinces, (some) warts and all.

The programmes read like a list of the last taboos of the Soviet era, including many that survived the years of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and Boris Yeltsin's free-for-all: top-secret military sites; newly restored religious shrines; social projects on such hitherto taboo subjects as domestic violence, drug abuse and poverty among the elderly.

The five-day trip in which I participated last week took in the headquarters of Russia's nuclear research programme in one of the closed military cities that have always been out of bounds, except with special clearance. We were also taken to Russia's first destruction facility for chemical weapons: the visits included no-holds-barred Q&A sessions with the directors, who appeared to have been briefed that all questions were permissible and all answers within their discretion.

The bright, young officials accompanying us steadfastly declined to offer any comment or interpretation of what we were seeing. We travelled hundreds of miles through rural areas by road, which would have been unheard of in Soviet times. Those of us familiar with those days found noticeable improvements: new roofs, extensions, better clothes, infinitely better supplies.

Again, for those accustomed to the ponderous presentations of the Soviet period, this was a whole new style: flexible and devoid of ideology. But it was not quite without glitches. Permission was refused at the last moment to see the building where chemical weapons are destroyed. A visit to the premier strategic bomber base was also cancelled. Several local officials seemed not to have entered the new era of "telling it how it is". President Putin's writ runs far, but not yet everywhere.