Thursday, December 23, 2010

Russia's image needs an overhaul (UPDATED AT BOTTOM)

TIME magazine correctly points out that the recent violent protests in Russia stemming from the death of a soccer player don't help the nation's image. The solutions being considered by the government also should raise concerns, for they smack of nationalism.

The fact that it was a soccer fan is especially troubling recognizing that Russia was recently named host of the 2018 World Cup, soccer's most prestigious international tournament. No, FIFA, soccer's governing body, won't remove the event from Russia, but without a doubt the publicity detracts from the positive energy and momentum that should flow from such an announcement.

The image issue also is being discussed on the university level, where one North Caucasus region has banned all faculty and students from wearing the hijab, the headscarf worn by many Muslim women. The issue is important because of its connection to the larger issues being addressed in Moscow:
Radical Islamic movements originating in the volatile North Caucasus have become an issue of concern for the federal authorities who have been fighting militants in the region for two decades.
Russia's chief Mufti Ravil Gainutdin said on Tuesday that followers of Islam in Russia have no complaints about their treatment by the authorities, who treat them "with great respect."
"Russia's multimillion Islamic community can have no claims toward the current authorities because our rights are not being suppressed," he said. "We live in a free, democratic country."
A recent outbreak of racially motivated violence has brought inter-ethnic relations to the fore in Russia, with both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stressing the multicultural nature of Russian society.

Oh, but Russia Today, founded by the Kremlin to bolster the country's image around the world, is quick to point out that it is the American media that are too quick to negatively characterize Muslims.

Meanwhile, a group interested in uncovering corruption within Russia is asking whether Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been diverting the nation's money for personal use. Such a question in a country that allows for a vibrant media system could lead to important discoveries about the prime minister; however, in Russia asking such questions could get you beat up, or worse.

To paraphrase what tennis great Andre Aggasi said, image can be everything.

1st UPDATE: 3:39 p.m. EST: And while we are talking about image overhauls, the government of Belarus could use one. Its treatment of journalists has drawn the attention of at least one Western-based advocacy organization. And another group is interested in the treatment of artists.

But as the Financial Times (correctly) points out, the government is being looked almost exclusively in terms of whether it will allow a Western-style economy to develop. It notes:

Despite its successful fundraising this year, Belarus still needs to find ways to boost its gross domestic product and attract foreign capital, agreed the credit strategist and the two debt investors.
In order to do so, the government expressed its intention to start a major programme of privatisation and economy liberalisation at the start of the year, but little progress has been made so far despite Belarus having invited Rothschild to advise on its privatisation process.
If the Financial Times article is to be believed, then we appear to face the same conundrum that has been faced by the West in countless other countries -- does it ignore the domestic human rights situation in favor of economic liberalism?

I think we know that answer.

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