by Vladimir Milov
A word from the translator: Glancing through the personal website of Vladimir Milov (pictured) I came across the following article, written by him for Vedomosti at the very end of 2006. It says a lot for Milov’s analytical capability and foresight that his article reads as if it could have been written yesterday and retains all its actuality. Milov, LR readers may remember, is the co-author of the Nemtsov White Paper I previously translated for this blog. The title "Frighten Them" (Напугали) invokes on a rather nice Russian phrase indicating a gap between perception and reality, напугали ежа голой жопой (frighten a hedgehog by waving one’s bare ass at it). 2006 has been a year of serious blows to Russia’s reputation. We Russians make up a little over 2% of the world’s population yet it would appear that no one any longer has any respect for us. And we achieved this entirely through our own efforts.
2006 has been a year of serious blows to Russia’s reputation. We Russians make up a little over 2% of the world’s population yet it would appear that no one any longer has any respect for us. And we achieved this entirely through our own efforts.
The Russian authorities began the year with a gas war against the Ukraine and followed this up with agricultural embargoes against Georgia and Moldavia. Our reaction to a couple of off-the-cuff remarks of the US President was to generate a tidal wave of anti-American hysteria. Instead of engaging in a civilised review of ecological problems at the Sakhalin-2 oilfield, we mount an aggressive PR attack on the project. By the end of the year, things are as bad as they can be – a campaign against Georgian accompanied by nationalist outpourings with Putin, in a public first, actually using the words “support for our own nationals”. The Economist asks if the the time has not come to use the f-word – fascism – in relation to Russia. Anna Politkovskaya is murdered and the president cannot find anything to say about it except to insult her posthumously. Litvinenko is poisoned. One would have thought that after the Yandarbiyev and Yushschenko afffairs, any normal president would have been desperate to prevent further suspicions falling on his country.
A business will willingly spend vast sums on reducing damage done to its reputation after a mouse-tail has been found in a bun. But not us... We Russians snap back and hurl counter-accusations. Most people view such behaviour as an indirect admission of guilt in a matter.
It’s perfectly possible and indeed pretty certain that plenty of crap wine was shipped from Georgia to Russia. It would only be fair if the Ukraine paid more for Russian gas. But there are ways and ways of doing things. One can firmly yet politely stand one’s ground whilst showing respect for one’s interlocutor and playing by the rules. Or one can be rude, abuse one’s strength, confiscate property, ignore legal and civil rights, stir up suspicions and follow all this up by throwing hysterics and refusing to admit any errors.
In today’s open world, reputation is not a mere trifle. On the contrary, it is one of the most important factors in the competition for the minds of people, for markets, and for the the future. China is frequently preferred over Russia by foreign investors – and not just because it has faster economic growth and cheaper labour but also because property rights are protected there, they don’t go around killing foreigners, and regulatory levels aren’t used for political ends. “We’re going to have to bring Geiger counters with us whenever we go out for a meal with Russians,” an American businessman I know gloomily joked. And it hurts when people say things like that.
In the 1990s, people around the world still had normal attitudes to Russians. We were considered poor but in other ways “the same as everyone” – people with a complex past and a future ahead of them. Now Russia’s image has degraded and we are thought of as a hopeless nation consisting in the main of mafia thugs and bandits, corrupt bureaucrats, and KGB agents. People don’t want us to buy shares in Western companies any more, although it was fine only a few years ago for Russian companies to do so. No one believes a word of what we say about environmental protection and public health any more so we had better not find foot-and-mouth disease for real in any meat we import. We are not feared, just to be avoided, as one avoids thugs and crazy people. And for sure we are not respected.
Yes, we have thugs and crazy people in Russia and yes, they have done plenty to destroy our country’s image. What matters now is that the rest of us, the normal Russians, should understand this and acknowledge the problems that have resulted. Because we are the ones who are going to have to deal with the consequences of our ‘polonial’ past.