Wednesday

22nd Sep 2021

Opinion

Belarus goes DIY on Public Relations

The Belarusian government has decided not to prolong its contract with British PR company Bell Pottinger, aimed at improving the country's image in Europe. The news poses the questions whether the country's leadership is putting the brakes on its recent policy of engagement with the European Union, and to what extent the PR effort helped the controversial regime to overcome its negative image abroad?

The answer to the first question is "no" and to the second, "hardly at all."

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The hiring of a British PR agency last August was part of a wider effort by the Belarusian leadership to develop a 'Western'-oriented policy. It included rapproachment with the European Union at the diplomatic level, legislative reform to attract Western businesses and attempts to reach out to the European public.

The strategy originated in the need to reduce the country's political and economic dependence on Russia, which has become a burden for the government and for president Alexander Lukashenka personally. The past year saw major progress in the political sphere, some positive economic initiatives and an interesting lesson in PR.

Belarus' political decisions, such as freeing top political prisoners or declining to recognise Georgian separatist regions as independent states, culminated in its inclusion in the EU's Eastern Partnership project.

Belarus-EU political co-operation remains pertinent today: Belarus-Russia relations have soured over the past 12 months, while Russian investments threaten to overwhelm the Belarusian economy. In the first half of 2009, the share of Russian investment in Belarus grew from 33 percent to 66 percent, and of Russian FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) from 16 percent to 86 percent.

Engagement with the European public has proven to be the weakest point in the Belarusian campaign, however.

Splashing out on the expensive services of Bell Pottinger's PR guru Lord Timothy Bell in the expectation that he would fix the country's poor image proved erroneous.

Firstly, the agency itself concentrated on creating publicity for a series of events, such as Belarus' parliamentary elections in 2008, a Belarus-England football match and an investment forum held in London the same year.

These were covered in a sparse and haphazard manner in the European print media, doing little to offer an overall picture of the country. Even the Financial Times' four-page special on Belarus on 18 November 2008, Bell Pottinger's most notable input, was printed with an image of the outlawed red-and-white Belarusian flag, which remains the rallying symbol for the anti-Lukashenka opposition.

In contrast, the opposition actively engaged with social networks, blogs, print media and TV. Celebrities such as UK playwright Tom Stoppard continued their activism, highlighting the opposition's concerns and strengthening the negative political image of the ruling regime.

Both Bell's agency and the opposition have concentrated on the virtues or vices of the Belarusian authorities, but neither camp has helped raise general European awareness about what makes Belarus and its people unique.

Creating an engaging image of the country, rather than its ruling elite, is the biggest challenge faced by the Lukashenka administration. The task will require more than Belarus' internal propaganda machine, its old PR firm or the opposition have come up with so far.

Georgian rebels hire US firm

Other controversial regimes, such as the authorities of Georgian separatist republics South Ossetia and Abkhazia, would do well to follow Lukashenka's lesson. But instead they have opted to hire an American PR agency to try to boost their foreign image.

The Los Angeles-based firm, Saylor Company, will be paid $30,000 a month for its services, gobbling up finacial resources which could have been used to better ends.

Belarus' attempt to improve its image also poses the question of whether it is morally correct for controversial regimes to try to buy an acceptable face abroad. It also asks the question of how the European public should respond.

Opening channels of communication between Europe and Belarus in a way that would encourage new personal contacts between individual Europeans and Belarusians could prove beneficial to both sides: European public engagement with the fate of Belarus could stimulate EU governments to build stronger links with the incumbent regime. It could also encourage substantial, long-term reform in the country. Most importantly, it would help ordinary Belarusians to get better understanding and appreciation of European values.

If the Belarusian administration replaces its white-stitched efforts to justify its regime, but instead engages in a committed and thoughtful campaign to bring Belarus and its people closer to ordinary Europeans, the European public would indeed do well to respond. It may itself be surprised by how much political influence it could have in this overlooked, unsuspecting country.

Alexander Fedulin is a co-founder of the London-based INSTID (Institute for State Ideologies) , a centre for the study and advancement of new forms of political engagement. Contact: info@sovetnik.co.uk

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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