Wednesday

10th Aug 2022

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."

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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.

Russia puts EU in nuclear-energy paradox

There's unprecedented international anxiety about the safety of Ukraine's nuclear reactors, but many European countries are also turning to nuclear power to secure energy supplies.

How Ukraine made the case anew for an EU army

The Kremlin attacked Ukraine because it believed it could afford to. It perceived nuclear deterrence between Russia and the West as reciprocal, and therefore almost a non-issue. It also saw, in military terms, Europe is disappearing from the world map.

Let Taiwan's democracy shine brighter

Dr Ming-Yen Tsai, head of the Taipei Representative Office in the EU and Belgium, responds to EUobserver op-ed on Taiwan by the Chinese ambassador to Belgium. "Taiwan is an 'island of resilience'. That will continue to be the case."

Supporting Taiwan 'like carrying water in a sieve'

China's ambassador to Belgium, Cao Zhongming, says the US has been distorting, obscuring and hollowing out the 'one-China' principle and unscrupulously undermining China's core interests. This is sheer double standards and a shameful act of bad faith.

One idea to tackle Big Energy's big profits

A new idea, besides a windfall tax on polluting Big Energy giants, is to make them invest their profits in their own sustainable futures. After all, these companies have a large 'sustainability debt' and extraordinary transition costs awaiting them.

Column

Global hunger crisis requires more than just the Odessa deal

International donors are playing hide and seek. Instead of stepping up their assistance programmes, richer nations are cutting overseas aid, or reallocating funds from other parts of the world towards the Ukraine crisis.

Exploiting the Ukraine crisis for Big Business

From food policy to climate change, corporate lobbyists are exploiting the Ukraine crisis to try to slash legislation that gets in the way of profit. But this is only making things worse.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  3. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis
  6. Council of the EUEU: new rules on corporate sustainability reporting

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us