President Putin last week urged Russian diplomats to improve Russia's "distorted" global image. He said the problem is not policy but presentation; Russia is not explaining itself clearly enough in the world. I think I can help improve Russia's image.
For example, some observers argue that image problems arise from the law passed by the Duma in 2006 permitting the extra-judicial killing of "extremists" living abroad who are "seeking to overthrow the Russian government." The definition includes "those slandering the individual occupying the post of President of the Russian Federation."
Now obviously I want to make it very clear right off the top that I am not slandering Mr Putin, either as a private individual, or in his capacity as President of the Russian Federation. Far from it. Anyone who can wrestle bears and tigers and yet weep tears of clearly genuine humility when he accepts a third term as President has got be good; tough, yet in touch with his feelings. Surely, everything one can want from a 21st Century male. But his caring side is compromised by legislation that accidentally makes him look like a cold-blooded ex-KGB agent from an early Bond film.
Licensing the execution of opponents without trial is an entirely reasonable measure for a democracy to take, I'm sure we could all agree. (Well, President Obama at least.) Yet some people are bound to find a way of putting a negative spin on it, like those putting it round that the Virgin Mary's continued silence on the incarceration of Pussy Riot, while God has already given the thumbs up on their jailing via a Russian Orthodox priest, is because she fears being a victim of this legislation.
If a regime has an image problem even with God on its side, it must have a serious problem, right?
Wrong. The solution is simpler than you might think. OK, extra-judicial killing is often a bit of a turn-off, especially with the human-rights bias prevalent in many decadent countries where many people have a knee-jerk resistance to murdering people for having an opinion. Solution? Give the whole "tracking down a dissident and killing them" concept a bit of a 21st Century makeover and we can turn it right around. First step: make political execution more viewer-friendly by adding a reality-show dimension. Introduce to the audience at home a group of potential victims who then over a period of weeks live together, perform a series of tasks, song and dance routines, or cook each other meals while the viewers get to vote for the one lucky winner who ends up getting whacked. (With the voting element, any accusations of being antidemocratic are straight out the window.) It is, if you will, "A process of elimination with a sting in the tail!" Let's call it, say, How Do You Solve A Problem Called Maria/Yuri/Sergei...Made in Moscow, Whacked in Docklands...Come Die With Me... Next, give the killers a human face. Make the assassination process a pro-celebrity event; a veteran hit-man teams up with a TV personality who has no previous experience of contract-killing. Huge potential for some classic double-act "lighter moments" here; in any arena, the inevitable in-at-the-deep-end basic errors of the novice are always hilarious television! Little bit of travelogue as the team move around the world in search of their prey. (Pulp Fiction meets Three Men in A Boat.) We warm to them as their little foibles make them human, and counterbalance the tired traditional perception of cold-blooded homicide as "a bit creepy".
Another reason Russia gets bad press is because since 2000, 17 journalists have been murdered in crimes linked to their work, with only one (partially) successful prosecution. It's clearly and indisputably sheer coincidence that all those journalists were murdered while investigating corruption, financial criminality, human rights abuses in the army, government and legal system. But journalists, a notoriously bitchy bunch, are seizing on the raw data and drawing sensationalized inferences simply because they are too lazy and shallow to find anything more important to write about than journalists being murdered for investigating corruption. The only solution here is to give them something else to write about. Like a World Cup, or celebrity gossip. Maybe talk to the Kardashians about cloning a Russian branch of the family.
Not only journalists are conspiring against Russia. Its reputation is also under threat from hooligan behaviour by certain elements of the periodic table, notably metals. A rogue trace of the radioactive isotope polonium 210 was responsible for death of ex-journalist and FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London. Although the polonium was clearly a lone wolf acting alone, some people cast suspicion on Russia simply because 95% of the isotope is made there. Another poisonous metal, mercury, again acting alone, found its way into the car of human rights lawyer Karina Moskalenko a few days before she was due to appear at the pre-trial hearing of those responsible and/or not responsible for the murder of journalist Anna Politovskaya. (Also killed by rogue metal behaviour, in this case lead from a Makarov pistol.) But here the presentation problem is extremely simple. Only paranoid conspiracy theorists would ever consider that the metals in question were not acting entirely alone as agents-provocateurs, so they can be banged up in mental institutions without much objection, apart from people who are clearly mad in turn and can also be put away.
Similarly, some critics look at the imprisonment of political opponents as diverse as oligarch Michael Khodorkovsky and the punk band Pussy Riot and wonder if the State isn't over-reacting. But let's be fair; as a government, you can't let dissenters walk around freely saying you're locking them up for no good reason - if you do, people might start to believe them.
One final tip for Mr Putin? Smile more. I bet you have lovely strong teeth.