Once the domain of propagandists showcasing the Soviet superlative, public relations in modern Russia is a rapidly growing profession. Unless, like Gregory Shvedov, you’re in the business of packaging and promoting human rights.
Shvedov is the news director for the nearly seventy bureaus affiliated with Memorial, a nongovernmental organization that catalogues and publicly commemorates the millions of victims of Soviet-era state-sponsored repression. Founded in 1988, it strives to show Russians that, in ignoring the tragic Soviet past, they are helping Russian President Vladimir Putin to consolidate his power. People in “a society without memory,” as Memorial’s website warns, are nothing more “than nuts and bolts in the state machine.” To encourage awareness, Shvedov and his partners start by conducting regional surveys on a specific issue. After gauging local public opinion, he helms a full-scale PR campaign, tailored to channel dissent into concrete political action.
Protesting the war in the Chechen Republic remains one of Memorial’s greatest challenges. Separatists are mostly Muslim and some factions have resorted to terrorism, while Russia has garnered the “inglorious distinction of being a world leader” in state-sponsored kidnappings, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. Since September 11, Putin has largely silenced international criticism by allying himself with President Bush’s “global war on terror.” He has also strong-armed civil liberties at home, cracking down hardest on NGOs like Memorial and other dissidents. Meanwhile, as Putin instigates nationalism, Russia’s litany of human rights violations continues to grow.
During a recent phone conversation from his office in Moscow, Shvedov offered his perspective on democracy and accountability in Putin and Bush’s “war on terror.”
How do you perceive Putin’s participation in what George W. Bush calls the “global war on terror”?
I personally think the whole concept of international terrorism is not working. There is terrorism, for sure, but I don’t believe in the so-called global terrorism network…. Terrorism is not caused by an external factor but by some internal reason. It exists inside of a state, where there are internal political problems, like the Kurds abused in Turkey, and the separatists’ battle for an independent Kurdistan, or in Egypt, where the existence of political prisoners is used to justify attacks on tourist hotels. It also is caused by conflicts that have already been legally resolved, such as in Northern Ireland, or in Spain, regarding the question of Basque autonomy…. By ignoring local threats in Iraq, the US Administration has produced a wave of terror, just as hundreds of waves, even a storm, was fueled by the Putin Administration in Chechnya. The international fight against terror causes newer and bigger waves of it, but it does not reduce the effectiveness of local rebels. Clearly, the global community needs another strategy for fighting terror.