Vladimir Putin has been praised this year for his work to promote a positive image of Russia. In reality, nothing has changed.
Vladimir Putin had a big week. Two members of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk band that gained notoriety in 2012 for protests against Putin’s government, were released from prison ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics. One of the Pussy Riot members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, released as part of a new “amnesty law” backed by Putin, said that Putin’s move was “a disgusting and cynical act”, and added that the group would continue to stage protests against Russia’s government. Putin also pardoned his one-time political rival and opposition leader, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in order to spend time with his ill mother.
The decision to release political prisoners ahead of the Olympics is absolutely a public relations move to promote a positive image of Russia. The problem is, this is well-known to be a public relations stunt, and not representative of actual conditions in Russia for political prisoners who did not make headlines in the West.
In accordance with Putin’s big year in terms of his influence on the world stage, Huffington Post published an article on Monday written by Ronn Torossian, a CEO of a top public relations firm in New York, praising Putin for several moves he made in 2013 that were PR-savvy: his dealing of the Snowden Affair, his op-ed in the New York Times at the height of tensions with Syria, and granting honorary citizenship to tax relief-seeking French actor Gerard Depardieu, have all been used by Western media as examples of Putin’s shrewd leadership in times of crisis.
Torossian gets one thing right: Putin’s agenda this year has been tailor-made to boost his “brand”; despite his best efforts, however, Putin’s image as a cold-hearted former KGB agent perseveres. The reaction in the West following Russia’s granting of asylum to Edward Snowden was not that Russia had become a beacon of civil liberties; rather, it was that Snowden was hypocritical for leaving the United States for the open arms of a government so widely accepted to be intolerant of opposition. The op-ed in the New York Times provided fodder for critics of the President, but it must be said that the threats of US involvement, as well as Russia’s diplomatic approach, averted an international crisis. Finally, Putin’s release of political prisoners like Pussy Riot, Greenpeace activists, and Khodorkovsky, has already been said to be a move motivated by pure propaganda. Torossian’s praise of Putin also ignores the fact that the anti-LGBT law that Putin championed caused the need for damage control in the first place. The bill pushed for heavy stigmatization of homosexuality in Russia, by, among other measures taken, banning the distribution of information to children. The bill has already led to a rise in homophobic violence.
The reality is that Putin is not a new leader with an unknown agenda. 2014 will mark his fifteenth year in power, including the years he spent as prime minister to Dmitry Medvedev in order to comply with constitutional term limits. At this point, the world has seen enough of Putin to know that he is, at the very least, an authoritarian leader, and no amount of public relations mojo will change that. The only way to fix Putin’s world image is to take legitimate steps to ensure freedom of speech for all Russians, regardless of whether they agree with him or not.