November 28, 1999

NYT - Russia Copies NATO in War to Win Minds


MOSCOW -- Mikhail Margelov has had his share of challenging assignments: assisting the KGB, working for the government news agency Tass, and then, in 1996, helping to produce the ads for President Boris Yeltsin's come-from-behind campaign. His new job tops them all: selling Russia's war in Chechnya to the public.

Taking a leaf out of NATO's book during its bombing of Yugoslavia, which was highly unpopular in Russia, and a lesson from the Chechen rebels during Chechnya's last war in 1994-96, the Russian government has established a center to organize news coverage of the Chechen conflict. As director of this operation, Margelov, 34, is trying to bring Western public relations techniques to a military that once scorned public opinion.

Working with military, intelligence and press ministry officials, he presides over twice-daily briefings, while his staff organizes guided press trips to view the Russian troops in Chechnya. His center, the Russian Informational Center, or Rosinformcenter, has even set up a Web site (, that coaches Russian officials and journalists on the politically acceptable way to report the war. Reports on Russian casualties, his center advises, should always be described as "minimal," "inconsiderable" or "unavoidable." Russia's adversaries should never be portrayed as Chechen fighters or field commanders, but "bandits" or "international terrorists."

"It is a step toward political correctness," Margelov said in an interview. "We don't punish the journalists if they don't use these terms, but we are trying to explain how we see the problem."

Government attempts to influence the press in wartime are nothing new. The Pentagon controlled the media's access to American troops during the Persian Gulf war of 1991. And it was NATO spokesmen who described the accidental killing of civilians in the bombing over Yugoslavia last spring as "collateral damage."

But the Western-style press operation offered by Rosinformcenter is something of a novelty here. Even as Russia deplored NATO's war with Yugoslavia, it seems to have copied some of its public relations techniques.

"Sometimes it seems like they are trying to outdo Jamie Shea," said Aleksandr Goltz, a military reporter for Itogi, a news magazine, referring to NATO's spokesman during the Kosovo conflict. "It looks like the Russian military has learned a few lessons from the press services of the Western armed forces."

The center has its share of critics among the Russian media who say that it is simply a giant fog machine trying to shroud an increasingly bloody conflict and this week's bombardment of Grozny -- the heaviest of the two-month war -- in a cloud of self-serving briefings, carefully supervised tours of Chechnya, a meager flow of photographs from the front and outright propaganda.

"In my view, Rosinformcenter has been turned into some sort of propaganda department and mouthpiece for the power center," said Valery Yakov, a military correspondent with Novoye Izvestiya.

Margelov, however, said the aim is simply to apply the lessons from the last Chechen war, when Russia lost the battle for public opinion to the beleaguered Chechen rebels, who also tended to be more friendly to the media than Russian forces molded by decades of Soviet censorship and secrecy. Russia's losses were huge, and widely reported in Russian media, turning public opinion against the war.

"Russia has learned several lessons from the previous conflict in Chechnya," Margelov said. "The previous conflict was not supported by the public. One of the major reasons was that the Russian mass media covered that conflict in a very negative manner."

Rosinformcenter was established in early October on the order of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who like Margelov has a background in the intelligence services. Putin has staked his presidential hopes on the success of Russia's military campaign in the Caucasus and has seen his poll ratings rise as Russian troops have continued their thrust into Chechnya.

In many ways, the public relations job is easier this time. It is not clear who bombed apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia in September, killing almost 300 people, but the Russian public broadly accepts that it was the work of Islamic militants in Chechnya.

And Russian military casualties -- 305 Russian soldiers and Interior Ministry troops have died in the war, according to Rosinformcenter -- are just a fraction of the thousands who perished last time.

The Chechens have also lost some of their sympathizers in the media. Kidnappings were so pervasive in Chechnya before the war that very few Russian or foreign reporters have recently ventured there. Even now, reporters are wary of entering Chechen-controlled territory to hear the Chechen side of the story.

The Russian bombardment and near-encirclement of the Chechen capital, Grozny, have also made access extremely difficult, and dangerous. Still, Russia has been assailed in the West for using blunderbuss tactics that unnecessarily risk the lives of civilians. In recent weeks, some Russian journalists have become more critical, too. And the Chechens have their own Web site ( that dispenses their version of the war, laced with a heavy dose of politics. On Friday, for example, the Web site reported that Yeltsin had died.

Margelov is fluent in English, lived for eight years in the Middle East and taught Arabic at the KGB's academy. He briefly worked for Tass, the government news agency, and for several Western management consulting firms. He was then a top executive at Video International, one of Russia's most profitable advertising agencies, which prepared the ads for Yeltsin's election campaign.

Margelov works closely with Aleksandr Mikhailov, a former spokesman for the KGB and Interior Ministry, who left military service with the rank of lieutenant general. Mikhailov said that his job is to take the mixture of conflicting data from Russia's military, Interior Ministry, border troops and intelligence services and fashion it into a single message that Margelov and other briefers can present to the world.

The center's work has not always gone smoothly. When Russian rockets rained down on a marketplace in Grozny last month, Margelov was with Putin, who was meeting European officials in Helsinki, Finland. Bereft of information from the battlefield, Putin and other Russian officials initially denied any Russian involvement. The Russian military only belatedly acknowledged that it was responsible for the attack. The episode was a powerful blow to the Russian government's credibility.

"It is a good example of why we need cooperation in the sphere of information," Mikhailov said. "We did not get any answers to our questions. I think it was the initiative of local commanders who did not think about the political consequences."

Nor does Rosinformcenter provide as many specifics as journalists would like. It has not, for instance, revealed the number of Russian forces in Chechnya or listed the units involved.

It is also still setting up a system to accredit journalists and supervise their battlefield visits. More than 70 Russian journalists have been accredited; they do not live with the troops, but visit Russian forces in Chechnya escorted by Russian officials. Some correspondents chafe at the supervision, asserting that their access is limited and that the escorts discourage the soldiers from speaking honestly.

"There is no formal censorship, but there is kind of a code of political correctness," Margelov replied, noting that reporters are encouraged to withhold details about the number and location of Russian units.

Rosinformcenter has also arranged two brief trips for the foreign press to Chechnya. During a one-day trip to Chechnya last week, the correspondents were free to wander off unattended and talk directly to Russian soldiers and to Chechen civilians, who were eager to criticize their new Russian masters.

There is no doubt that the center's overall mission, however, is to shape the way the media presents the conflict. Its press guidelines caution against using the term "humanitarian catastrophe" to describe the plight of civilians in Chechnya. It warned that refugees should be called "temporarily displaced" persons. And it cautioned that it is improper to speak of Chechen field commanders since "terrorists do not have brigadier generals."

There is still one bit of public relations that the Russian military lacks: a patriotic name for its military operation like Desert Storm, the Pentagon name for the Gulf war, or Just Cause, the name of the American invasion of Panama.

"That's unfortunate," said Margelov. "I would love to have one."

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