NATO has a PR problem in Russia. A recent picture from a trip to Samara, a city on the Volga almost 1000km from Moscow, provides some context: “War = NATO. 1941 = 2010? Wake up.” Other graffittied slogans from my trip to that city included “NATO = Death” and “NATO: Get out of Russia.”
But let’s provide some data points. The Levada Center, which conducts surveys of Russian general opinion, has been monitoring the question “What do you think, is there a basis in Russia to fear those countries of the west including NATO?” With slight fluctuations in 1997 60% of people answered “Absolutely Yes;” in 2009, 62%. (Those answering “Absolutely No” were 27% in 1997, 26% in 2009). (Site in Russian here.)
This general trend is supported by other surveys. In 1997 and 2007 they asked “The leadership of NATO states that the bloc is now not directed against Russia. What do you think?” In 1997 44% responded “It’s a fib – NATO was and remains hostile to our country.” In 2007 it grew to 56%. (Site in Russian here.)
Finally, since 2003 they have been asking “Of the following options, which is most in Russia’s interest?” where options include “Join NATO,” “Work with NATO in the interest of common security” and “Resist the expansion of NATO.” From 2003 to 2010, those wishing to work with NATO on common goals has decreased from 43 to 26%, those who wish to resist its expansion have increased from 14% to 25%. (Site in Russian here.)
This is a problem. It’s a problem not only in-and-of itself, but because perceptions (right or wrong) fuel the classical security dilemma. And if Russians think that NATO is a threat, they will treat it as a threat in their foreign policy.
Yet when asked about public diplomacy efforts in Tuesday’s panel discussion “Russia in NATO – Fiction or Necessity,” Petr Lunak, a Czech representative of NATO, stated that public perception of NATO is getting better in Russia. He sited a report by a think tank associated with President Medvedev, INSOR, which has called for Russia to join and recent comments by perpetual political clown Vladimir Zhirinovsky, hardly a reliable source.
NATO needs to do more to brush up its image in Russia, a conclusion confirmed by the polling data. “So what about PR?” I asked of Mr. Lunak at today’s conference. “I hate the word PR,” he responded, “It’s not as though we’re going to hand out pens which say Russia-NATO Council.” But good PR is exactly with NATO needs. So, Mr. Lunak, maybe you should.
Joshua de Lara – New Challenges in Transatlantic Security
George Washington University
United States of America