By Sabina Zawadzki - Analysis
KIEV (Reuters) - Russia has shown in its gas price row with Ukraine that it has learnt some lessons in how to handle the media since being widely portrayed as the aggressor during a similar dispute in 2006.
Moscow reduced gas supplies to Kiev on January 1, as it did three years ago, cutting flows to European countries which receive much of their gas through Ukraine. But this time, it has fared better in the public relations battle.
Since the dispute in 2006 the Kremlin has hired one of the world’s largest public affairs firms, Omnicom, and its Brussels unit, Gplus Europe.
The world’s media have been regularly updated on the actions and intentions of Russian state gas monopoly, keeping up a barrage of information that has so far helped Russia hold its own in the PR war.
“We are very seriously thinking about our reputation because we have a lot to be proud of -- 20 years of reliable supply in very difficult times,” Gazprom Deputy Chief Executive Alexander Medvedev told a news conference in London on Tuesday.
“After 2005-2006, we got some lessons because we were wrongly blamed for what happened at that time.”
In 2006, the European Union loudly condemned Moscow and openly questioned Russia’s reliability as a supplier. The EU’s sympathy lay largely with Ukraine following the 2004 “Orange Revolution” which brought pro-Western leaders to power.
But Kiev has lost much of the sympathy it had then because of feuding between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko which has delayed reforms.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has led Moscow’s denunciations of Ukraine’s actions during the gas dispute, and Gazprom has launched a Web site to explain its side of the row -- www.gazpromukrainefacts.com.
Gazprom’s Medvedev has also toured European countries, giving briefings and interviews in which he accuses Ukraine of stealing gas meant for Europe.
“At the moment, we are finding Gazprom’s arguments far more convincing,” said one European diplomatic source in Kiev.
“Gazprom is putting on the table basic data and statistics, which are hard facts...Gazprom is ready to provide some ready-made figures, while on the Ukrainian side it takes some time and there can be conflicting data,” the source said.
It has not all been plain sailing this year for Russia, which alarmed the West by waging a brief war with Georgia after Georgian forces tried to retake control of breakaway South Ossetia in August.
During the war, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili portrayed his country as a tiny neighbor battered by “imperialists” in Moscow, a view that was reflected in large parts of the world’s media.
The gas row has also served to underline growing Western concerns about Russia’s relations with neighboring countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, and has revived old fears about Moscow’s reliability as a supplier.
The PR battle may also become harder to win over coming days. The longer gas supplies to Europe are affected, the harder it will be for Moscow not to appear a bully, especially as Europe is facing a particularly cold spell.
The Sun, a British tabloid, has already referred to Putin as “Vlad the Horrible” and Ukraine’s leaders may be banking on winning the blame game in the long run.
“They are calculating, and I think not without basis, that the longer this drags on the more the blame will be laid at Moscow’s door,” said Fyodr Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
Ukraine’s public relations operation has been led by state energy firm Naftogaz, which has been in daily touch with the media, giving updates on technical developments.
Gazprom says it has “left no stone unturned to avoid” a cut in supplies, that its first price offer was more than reasonable and that as a commercial company it should be paid its debts.
Naftogaz says it paid its debts and Gazprom’s offer was too high because Ukraine has three years to get to market prices.
Ukraine’s top politicians have largely been silent since gas supplies were reduced on January 1.
Tymoshenko has said nothing in public on the dispute apart from issuing a joint statement with Yushchenko. The president, who has been on holiday, also sent a short telegram to European states which was published on his Web site.
“Part of the problem regarding PR, as I see it, is that most Western media are based in Moscow and maintain regular contact with political and business elites there,” said Tammy Lynch, Senior Research Fellow at Boston University’s Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy.
“Ukraine’s interests, even in a dispute like this, are peripheral to the ‘big issue’ of Russia’s relations with Europe.”