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Analysis & Opinion
01.12.08 An Exercise In Bad Publicity
By Roland Oliphant

If you’ve already booked your tickets to Moscow, researching your destination online and reading the latest newspaper reports from Russia would be a bad idea—they might make you want to reconsider. Russia’s capital city has been drawing a lot of criticism in mass media outlets both at home and abroad as one of the least favorable places to visit, whether for tourism or for business. The city authorities recognize that some of these accusations are true, but at the same time shift the blame to the media itself for deliberately painting the city in dark hues.

If there was a rating of the world’s cities that get the worst publicity, Moscow would certainly top the list. According to a report released by the Moscow based IMA Consulting agency, the amount of unfavorable media coverage that the city’s government receives has exceeded the amount of positive reports for the past eight years. The lowest point came in 2004, when over 12 percent of all reports were negative, nearly three times the number of the positive reviews. These numbers have softened since, but to this day the trend has persisted.

Moscow’s image is strongly tied to that of Russia, which is making considerable progress in its campaign to come back to the global stage as one of the leading political and economic players. Being the bellwether of this rapid economic growth garners Moscow enough positive attention. At the same time, the praise is countered by reports on the high levels of corruption, mistreatment of the city’s architectural legacy, the poor performance of the housing utility services and the incredibly high levels of pollution, which make for obvious targets of criticism.

Keeping out of politics seems to be a much bigger challenge for the city than it may seem. One of the key conclusions of IMA’s research was Moscow’s strong association with its Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, as his statements and actions make for the reason behind every second mention of the city in the media. “We can say that Moscow’s image is very personified,” said the General Director of IMA Consulting Vartan Sarkisov.

And this is hardly good news, as Luzhkov has gained notoriety for his overly controversial political statements, often perceived as an expression of the Kremlin’s radical views that it finds too risky to publicize. Moreover, Luzhkov, who enjoys strong popularity at home, is unfavorably perceived as a mayor, bearing the blame for an authoritative style of managing the city and breeding corruption and intolerance toward the minorities, following the infamous incident with his ban on the gay pride parade last year.

No tools for makeup

Another constant source of bad news about the city is the various rating charts regularly published in the media. Moscow is always ranked as the most expensive city in the world, while getting failing grades for fighting crime and protecting the environment. Moscow was placed 14th on the list of the world’s dirtiest cities released by the Forbes magazine earlier this year, trailing India’s New Delhi by ten points. Moscow was also named the fifth most dangerous city by the Foreign Policy magazine this year. In the ratings of the most business-friendly European cities published regularly by the Cushman & Wakefield consulting company, Moscow can always be found at the very bottom.

“The same is being published month after month,” lamented the Press Secretary of the Environment Protection Department of the Moscow Government Irina Brainina at a roundtable discussion dedicated to the research. “These ratings are based on the reviews published by media outlets, but nobody ever asks us for the numbers we have,” she added.

The city government argues that some crucial data is being overlooked. For one, as it is hard to deny that Moscow has an environmental problem endemic for any big city, its green spaces could be the subject of envy for any of the world’s metropolises. Each Muscovite enjoys at least 16 square meters of planted land—double the number of New York and triple that of Tokyo. “I have all the information about how Moscow is different from other cities, if we take the median coefficient it will be about the same, but no one has ever asked us about that,” said Brainina.

Reports of Moscow’s policemen not abiding by the laws are also frequent, while the city’s recent initiative to send its militia chiefs to Israel to learn from the local police force’s rich experience in handling emergencies has been barely mentioned anywhere. New cultural and religious centers get opened and immigration is on the rise, but it never gets nearly as much attention as the activities of various radical nationalist and conservative movements.

The city claims that the sinister media campaign has a reason behind it, and is bolstered by the domestic outlets, whose criticism is seen as especially excessive and intentional. “I listen to the Ekho Moskvy radio station a lot, and every time it makes me want to shoot myself,” said Pyotr Kuprikov, the deputy head of Moscow’s international relations department. “This is my country and I sometimes disagree with things, I protest against things, but I’ve never had the ‘the worse the better’ mindset. What hurts the most is that you’ll often see a biased article in foreign media full of references to Russian reporters,” he added.

Part of the problem, however, is Moscow’s own unwillingness to change its approach to public relations. The city government openly asserts that Moscow is the main battleground of the supposed media war against Russia, yet it does little to counter it. Kazakhstan answered comedian Sasha Baron Cohen’s mockery of the country by hiring two Western public relations companies and launching a media campaign titled the “Heart of Eurasia,” which included a four page advertisement in the New York Times aimed at patching up the country’s global image. Moscow doesn’t have a problem with recognition, but, above other things, there is a huge informational vacuum about the city outside of Russia.

All of the government’s efforts aimed at ameliorating the situation boil down to endless press conferences with both the Western and domestic media invited. Yet, when it comes to promotion campaigns and even something as basic as processing the media’s requests for information, things get tricky. When watching television outside of Russia, it’s much easier to catch a tourism ad about the far more obscure and polluted Azerbaijan than any promotional videos about Moscow, which opts to refrain from this kind of publicity spending. More so, the government’s departments often have just one press secretary, who doesn’t even have subscriptions to newswires. “This problem certainly exists and the mayor’s own political will is needed to solve it,” said a professor at the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Igor Panarin.
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