A recent roundtable discussion at Columbia University examined the issue of image crafting by authoritarian governments in the Caucasus and Central Asia, especially Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. A featured speaker suggested that relatively modest expenditures on positive PR in the United States and European Union were enough to skew attitudes and provide cover for repressive practices.
Policy-makers in Washington aren’t always focused on developments in the Caspian Basin and thus are susceptible to being unduly influenced by image-crafting, according to Myles Smith, a senior program officer at IREX who has written extensively on the issue. [Editor’s Note: Smith is an occasional contributor to EurasiaNet.org].
“It doesn’t take much to influence [decision-makers] one way or another,” Smith said, referring to Kazakhstan’s and Azerbaijan’s PR efforts in the West.
Smith stressed during the round-table that officials from Kazakhstan and other states in the region were not violating any laws as they spread money among K Street lobbyists, media outlets, individual journalists and academic institutions. The chief problem associated with image-crafting efforts concerns disclosure, or, more accurately, the lack of it.
Advertorials designed to resemble independent news articles or academic reports are increasingly being published by media outlets and academic institutions, Smith noted. These advertorials often lack proper labeling to show that they were funded by the countries that are the subjects of the supposed articles and reports. In many cases, funding sources are hard to determine, Smith added. This makes it difficult for experts to estimate how much foreign governments such as Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are spending per year on image crafting.
While disclosure laws apply to lobbying activity, reporting requirements are vague enough that the financial tracks made by image-crafters can be covered. “We have lobbying laws that allow lobbyists to work in the shadows,” Smith said.
Smith went on to say that financial pressures affecting mass media and academia are tempting journalists and political scientists to blur the lines when it comes to the disclosure of funding sources. “It’s easy to see how vulnerable these institutions are,” Smith said in calling for tougher transparency standards.
Another featured speaker at the March 5 event was Hugh Williamson, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. On the issue of image-crafting, HRW is focusing on the practice of hiring high-profile politicians and policy makers as consultants,” Williamson said. The most prominent example of such activity is the hiring of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a political advisor to the Kazakhstani government.
Williamson contends that Blair has not fulfilled a moral obligation as a former leader of a Western democracy to speak out publicly on Kazakhstan’s tepid democratization record. In a spirited exchange of letters with Blair, Williamson suggested that the former British PM, in effect, was providing cover for rights abuses.
“It’s extremely difficult to know what he [Blair] does” for Kazakhstan, Williamson said at the March 5 discussion, which was sponsored by Columbia’s Harriman Institute. When HRW sought details on Blair’s Kazakhstani consultancy, he was “almost completely untransparent” and “refused to meet with us.”