Peskov helps Russia gradually open up to West

Russia's tumultuous business and political dealings these days don't make the job of Dmitry Peskov, first deputy press secretary to Russian president Vladimir Putin, particularly easy.

Russia's tumultuous business and political dealings these days don't make the job of Dmitry Peskov, first deputy press secretary to Russian president Vladimir Putin, particularly easy.

On a recent tour of the US and UK with other officials to promote Russia's recently ended year-long G8 presidency, Peskov told PRWeek that "distractions" such as the mysterious polonium 210 poisoning of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko certainly draw a lot of attention away from other issues the Russian government is eager to discuss with the West.

"We all understand that very frequently what is being planned is affected by current or de facto information or situations," he admits. "Of course it makes our job harder in communicating globally, but that's inevitable."

Despite lingering stereotypes of Cold War Russia, Peskov says his office successfully communicates with the world at large on a variety of issues, including the very crucial one of oil and natural gas production and distribution.

A graduate of Moscow State University's Institute for Asia and Africa, Peskov began work in the Soviet Foreign Ministry in 1989, so he appreciates how Russia's government's has become more open since the Soviet Union fell. For the most part, he says, the Kremlin has made great strides in being more open about its dealings, though changing such a bureaucratic culture doesn't happen immediately.

"You can't just issue a decree that from now on we'll be transparent with communications," he says of the officials working within the Russian government's many different ministries. "It takes time."

But what of criticism that the Russian government has clamped down on press freedom? The government controls two major national TV channels, but Peskov says there are many regional TV stations that are independent, as are thousands of national and regional print titles. He adds that the idea that government could somehow control all of them is absurd.

"Sometimes governors in certain Russian regions are trying to influence local press, to limit their capability for criticism," he says. "When we receive information about such situations, we do whatever is possible to get press free of those local authorities. But Russia is a huge country, don't forget."

But Dr. Richard Weitz, a senior fellow at the DC-based Hudson Institute public policy group, questions some of Peskov's assertions. He says the influence of smaller titles or regional TV stations does not match that of major Russian-control state media. He also notes that the government seems to be cracking down on Web use, under the guise of preventing terrorism.

As for the notion of Soviet-era bureaucracies needing time to adjust to Western notions of transparency, Weitz notes that the Mikhail Gorbachev era of glasnost began more than 20 years ago. "I'd be surprised if you have government officials now who are used to just giving orders and not having to explain themselves," he says.

Weitz agrees that some aspects of Russia's international dealings are not as nefarious as some critics claim. In fact, the nuances of the dispute between state-run Gazprom and the Ukraine last year over natural gas subsidies - a situation recently mirrored in dealings between Russia and Belarus - helped persuade Russian officials in charge of the committee overseeing the G8 presidency of the value of using Western PR firms.

"We simply understood at that moment that our argumentation was not being heard," Peskov says.

Thus, Ketchum was hired to help handle media relations for Russia's G8 presidency, though Peskov stresses that the firm was never expected to "spin" the reality. "We were told very openly," he recalls, "'We're not going to work instead of you. You [will] and we will assist you in communicating.'"

Dmitry Peskov

2000-present
First deputy press secretary for President Vladimir Putin

2000
Section head for media relations, Russian presidential press office

1996-2000
Second secretary, then first secretary at Russian embassy in Ankara, Turkey

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