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Over the barriers

Think-tanks, newspapers and state agencies make it their work to ratchet up superpower tension. For Russia and the US, it’s time to transcend these intermediaries and speak face-to-face. Русский

Discussing the future of USIA in 1987: Edward B Williams, Rupert Murdoch and USIA director Charles Week. (c) Ron Edmonds / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.As part of our series “25 years of change”, we publish part two of Vasily Gatov’s long essay on the history of “mediation” between Russia and the US. You can read the first part here.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian and American media intermediaries that had smoothed the way for superpower dialogue fell on hard times — from effective liquidation, as in the case of the international departments of the Communist Party Central Committee and the KGB in 1991, to total reorganisation and fragmentation, as was the fate of the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1999.

But although the USA didn’t start formally dismantling its “cold war forces” immediately, the USIA’s decline began much earlier. The agency’s budget was cut, for the first time in its history, as early as 1989, and in 1993 the cuts went deeper after Bill Clinton, who supported Boris Yeltsin and regarded USIA as a Cold War hangover, was elected US president. Politically, the heads of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the Clinton-era Voice of America were “doves”. Even Radio Liberty was no longer an instrument of the CIA, leaving its fortified headquarters in Munich for Prague.

While Russia’s “Cold War information forces” pyramid was decapitated and left without formal leadership for a decade, its US counterpart retained its “cloud logic”, distributing USIA’s functions among a number of agencies. Information management was gradually reduced to a minimum.

In both the USA and the former Soviet Union, the communities of international journalists and “political commentators”, the individuals who had brought the pronouncements of the Kremlin and the White House to the public, fell apart. New writers and experts, young and often without any previous knowledge, appeared on the scene. What remained of the old guard switched to educational and regional analysis journalism, explaining the actions of their old enemies without ideological clichés, but also without love.

What remained of the old guard switched to educational and regional analysis journalism

These organisational changes and respective governments’ refusal to engage in these operations created a radical change of habitat for media outlets, especially in the former USSR. To use the language of media ecology, not only were they no longer “fed”, they were forced to make big changes in their diet.

Russia’s Institute of USA and Canada Studies survived the 1990s on grants and exchange programmes with American universities and research centres. Within the US media sphere, Sovietologists and specialists in the “taming” of the USSR looked for employment in the businesses that had sprung up between the two economies, providing advice to their former objects of study.

The systems, forced to mutate, changed and adapted — curtailing their numbers, necessity and aggressive ethos. But at the end of 1990s, Russia, or more precisely prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, needed the services of the “old guard” once again. And by the mid-2000s, so did Vladimir Putin. Even the green shoots of ideology in Russian soil provided food for this beast, which had indeed turned out to be able to survive in the most unfavourable of conditions.

As we can see a decade later, these lean years of humiliation left their mark.

Munich and after

The first years of Putin’s rule, as is clear in retrospect, were a time of strange and contradictory processes — especially where foreign policy is concerned.

History played into the USA’s hands, confirming the existence of what Putin described in his speech to the Munich Security Conference in 2007 as a “unipolar world”. America’s economic and political domination coincided with a number of proxy wars being waged thousands of miles from Washington. Russia, personified by Putin, not only supported the US War on Terror after 9/11, but provided it with some of its military infrastructure.

1999: Vladimir Putin and defence minister Igor Sergeev observe test flights. (c) Sergei Subbotin / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Meanwhile, between 1999 and 2004, almost all the former Warsaw Pact states and some former USSR republics had become members of NATO and, between 2004 and 2013, the EU. And those that remained outside, apart from Belarus, were expressing serious intentions to join.  

Putin’s first years in power were marked not only by good relations with the west — they were also a time of dismantling the structures of confrontation. Russia and NATO worked in cooperation with one another. Strategic arms reduction treaties were implemented. Funding provided under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program poured into Russia’s military and nuclear industries, mostly with the aim of liquidating surplus nuclear armaments.

Since 2000, NASA has used Russian RD-180 engines, produced by Russia’s Energomash engineering company in conjunction with the American aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, to power its Atlas-V rocket launchers. I imagine that if any Cold War-era commanders-in-chief were to hear of this, they’d lose their minds on the spot.

At the same time, it was during Putin’s rise to power that the “feeding conditions” of Russia’s Cold War army began to change. Interestingly enough, similar processes have been at work in the USA since the start of the global “war on terror” — a new weaponisation of ideas that had lost their relevance with the breakup of the Soviet Bloc.

It was during Putin’s rise to power that the “feeding conditions” of Russia's Cold War army began to change

Dispersed groups of media from both sides of the Atlantic began to flock together once more — for example, in 1992 the Kremlin set up its Russian Institute of Strategic Studies (RISS). This was, to begin with, no more than a consultancy company consisting of former diplomats, international affairs specialists and intelligence services people. By the end of the 1990s, however, and particularly after 2001, the number of intelligence analysts in RISS grew constantly. In 2009, the Institute came under the aegis of the Presidential Administration, with former chief of the SVR’s intelligence and analytical department Leonid Reshetnikov as its head.

A little later, in 1996, the American geopolitical forecaster and strategist on international affairs George Friedman set up his own global intelligence company, Stratfor, in Austin, Texas. Both these bodies would play an important part in the new round of emergent confrontation.

The Munich turn

In the period 2000-2007, Russia’s economy experienced aggressive growth thanks to a combination of a low base effect and favourable oil prices. The reforms carried out by Putin in his first years also facilitated development, as did the foreign capital markets that were opening again in Russia.

The Kremlin’s idea of “sovereign democracy”, while generally still a strictly verbal construct, began to influence foreign policy, especially after the events of the “First Maidan” of 2004 in Kyiv, which were less than favourable for Moscow. The as yet unwritten memoirs of those years will no doubt furnish detailed answers to the question of how the political technologists of the early 2000s were squeezed out by geopolitical strategists scarred by the Cold War.

In Munich in 2007, and especially at the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008, “the changing of the guard in Putin’s ear” became a fact. The basis of Russia’s foreign policy decisions, which had previously emerged from objective post-Cold War conditions, was due for reassessment.

Munich, 2007: Vladimir Putin warns that the US' increased use of military force is creating a new arms race, with smaller nations turning toward developing nuclear weapons. (c) Diether Endlicher / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Disparate grievances about US and European foreign policy began to come together in a distinct view of the world that Putin foisted, with increasing persistence, not just on the Russian public, but the world outside too. And in 2008, Russia Today, the English language TV channel whose original aim was to project a new image of Russia in the west, was reformed for the latter.

But now this positive image was replaced with something closer to the propaganda arsenal of the old confrontational politics — the broadcast of news and current affairs as seen from Moscow.

Disparate grievances about US and European foreign policy began to come together in a distinct view of the world that Putin foisted, with increasing persistence, not just on the Russian public, but the world outside too

Two years later, this approach became even more aggressive — not just to “provide access” to a Russian point of view, but to “question more”. RT’s mission was criticise the western view of events, “combat” the unipolar American picture of world politics and bring it into doubt.

Was the “Munich turn” a consequence of the Cold War media-intermediary’s resurrection, or did this “creature”, on the contrary, owe its resurrection to Putin’s personal analysis of the world?

All’s quiet on the former western front

To answer this question, we should look at what was happening on the former western front at that moment. The media intermediaries involved in the dialogue between major, formerly mutually hostile powers, were not just the press and TV and analytical centres, but several government institutions responsible for soft power programmes. They not only pursue these politics, but answer for the results to those responsible for their existence and budget. (This is to some extent true for both the USA and Russia.)

At roughly the same time as Putin was demonstrating his disillusionment with the American direction of global politics, these purveyors of “soft power” started sounding off to Washington (and soon afterwards to European capitals) about their growing problems with working in Russia and Moscow’s client states. What in 2003-2007 had seemed like individual cases of “politics of envy” (pressure on the Soros Foundation, the odd spy trial, hints about American interference in the Khodorkovsky case) now began to form a coherent picture.

However, neither the White House nor Brussels were ready for a complete turn-around in Russian politics — both the personal relationships between Vladimir Putin and other world leaders, and a general formal consensus of geopolitical relations remained “positive”, albeit complex.

But on 8 August 2008, to a background of gunfire in the short Georgian-South Ossetian conflict, the lives of media intermediaries took a new turn.

The return of the free lunch

Russia announced it was joining the international club of interventionists — states happy to use not just “soft power” in international relations, but the hard kind as well. Perhaps only on a microscopic scale, but the Russian threat was returning to global politics. The almost immediate result was a distinctly negative reaction from western, and particularly American, media, who probably hadn’t yet caught a whiff of their future feeding trough, but reacted spontaneously within their usual system of values. (American leadership, globalisation, rules the same for all, with the small exception of the USA.)

This western media reaction, interpreted in Moscow as a concerted response organised and directed by the US State Department, became the basis for accepting that the analysis put forward in Putin’s Munich speech was correct. The almost immediate collapse of Russia’s chief economic indicators — and, as a result, the specific crisis that hit Russia in 2008-2009 — only added credibility to the notion of “deliberate synchronisation”. And from there to an accusation of “Russophobia” was but a single step.

The “reboot” proposed in March 2009 was seen from the start, by at least certain Moscow circles, as insincere and ultimately unfavourable to Russia. These circles, presented as either military, or spokespeople for the police and security sector, or perhaps just typical media professionals, did not just criticise president Dmitry Medvedev for his readiness to “reboot” relations with the west. They used the bureaucratic and political powers at their disposal to openly obstruct any “thaw”.

The sharp expansion of the media’s diet at the time of “reset” was no coincidence. First the Russian government and then, after a certain time, old American and European structures realised that big changes were on the way

Initially, this obstruction was mainly in the media: clear anti-American statements could be heard in political, and later in TV news programmes, especially those presented by patriotic journalists such as Mikhail Leontyev, Maksim Shevchenko and Arkady Mamontov. Specialist circles were divided on the issue: notional Russian “realists” like political analysts Sergey Karaganov and Fyodor Lukyanov remained supporters of the “thaw” side, whilst RISS experts and many conservative economists (Sergey Glazyev, Mikhail Delyagin) were already feeling a cold wind and describing events in corresponding fashion.  

A major factor in the growth of the media’s diet on both sides of the Atlantic was the continuing trend towards “colour revolutions”, beginning with Moldova in April 2009. Russian military and counter intelligence media outlets had already begun to develop the theme of US interference in the democratic processes of zones of Russia’s national interests during the first wave of regime change in 2003-2005. The expansion of NATO into eastern Europe and the extension of partnership programmes to Ukraine and Georgia were inevitably linked in the minds of Russian media intermediaries to the waves of social protest. Anything beyond the traditional standard contacts between American diplomats and opposition politicians and organisations was immediately interpreted as bribery and control by enemies of these countries’ rulers.

On the American side of the Atlantic, any wave of social protests also provided fodder for intermediaries here — although in a very different way. Some American analysts and politicians saw the next round of “colour revolutions” as signs of terminal weakness in transitional post-Soviet states. It was not enough for them to seed their rhetoric with direct references to “killing the hydra” and letting democracy triumph in places that had not experienced full-scale transition. Any negative reaction to these revolutions from Moscow were greeted with cries of “neo-Soviet expansionism”, which was standing in the way of “the bright triumph of democracy”.

An equally important trip to the feeding trough was provided by the Sergei Magnitsky case, which unrolled in several stages from the middle of 2007. The case, and the events that followed it, were a prime example of a feeding frenzy. The media intermediaries not only fed well, but aggressively expanded the space they had access to. And the passing in 2011 of the “Dima Yakovlev law”, which banned US citizens from adopting Russian children, was not just another non-stop feast, but something that defined what side you were on: those who opposed this asymmetric misanthropic measure were enemies; those who supported it were friends.

The sharp expansion of the media’s diet at the time of “reset” was no coincidence. First the Russian government and then, after a certain time, old American and European structures realised that big changes were on the way.

The legacy of Andropov

Reminiscences of the “counterintelligence state” of the time of Soviet general secretary Yuri Andropov today seem not only frighteningly prescient, but very relevant to Putin’s Russia after 2011.

In 2010-2011, years that marked a change in the situation of media intermediaries, Russia succeeded in portraying itself as both a transition state and a “counterintelligence state”, and the reaction of media on the other side of the ocean was boringly predictable.

Russia’s mass political protests in the winter and spring of 2011-2012 were strongly reminiscent, especially if you were prone to wishful thinking, of another colour revolution in the making. The developing crises in Libya and Syria (and media intermediaries thrive on interpreting any event through the prism of conspiracy theory, particularly if they feel this is what the “counterintelligence state” wants from them) was a godsend for our beasts. If before Putin’s return to the Kremlin the news headlines bore at least some relation to what was happening in Russia, even if they were heavily skewed towards the activities of the Kremlin, after May 2012 there was no attempt at balance and TV news was just a stream of “Putin went to Putin saw Putin in the river Putin”.

At the same time, Russia’s international politics were increasingly moving in an anti-western, anti-American direction. On the one hand, this was a result of cooling relations with US president Barack Obama. On the other, Russia’s rulers and the media organisations sensitive to their movements (and souls) chose “consolidation” as their aim, to build a “majority” whose very existence would turn Putin’s third term into a conundrum about chickens and eggs.

Russia’s international politics were increasingly moving in an anti-western, anti-American direction

Western media intermediaries, meanwhile, regarded Putin’s return as something more than a mere autocratic tendency to make various excuses to hang onto power. Some military analysts saw Minister of Defence Anatoly Serdyukov’s reforms and his subsequent replacement by Sergey Shoigu as signs of “aggressive re-arming”, triggering the appearance of alarmist articles and reports of this dangerous new direction being taken by the Kremlin.

Political NGOs came under threat — talk about a “foreign agents” law was followed by the law itself, later legislation enshrined the concept of an “undesirable organisation”. Although these steps were perfectly logical in the context of a “counterintelligence state”, in the eyes of the western media they were more evidence of Moscow’s intention of destroying and continuing to destroy the established rules of international relations. Russian media hacks, on the other hand, rejected this criticism, dubbing it “Russophobia” and an “information war”.

2012: Moscow Memorial building is sprayed with graffiti 'foreign agent'. (c) Ivan Sekretarev / AP/ Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Into the midst of this spiral of tension in Moscow’s media sphere came a new US Ambassador, Michael McFaul, a representative of a new generation of Russia specialists who were replacing the old guard of the Cold War period. McFaul’s earlier involvement in Washington politics was already a bad sign in the eyes of the revitalised Russian media industry. His arrival provoked unconcealed pressure on the already half dead “reboot” policy — at first at an internal level (harassment of meetings between McFaul and opposition politicians, noisy rallies held by Nashi and other pro-Kremlin groups next to the embassy), and then through the effective banishment from Russia of any American organisation that could be suspected of anything whatsoever.

The media are generally good at suspicion: since 2013, the conspiracy theory of world history has become mainstream in Russian politics, and any action by the USA has been interpreted as part of a plan to weaken or destroy a country that, in the words of the Kremlin’s top TV anchor Dmitry Kiselev, “could reduce American cities to piles of radioactive ash”.   

Kyiv and after

There is no need to describe the events of 2014-2015 in detail. The much predicted scenario of a colour revolution began to unroll in Kyiv, confirming the fears of both the corridors of power and the media that serve them, who in their conspiracy theory mindset saw anything happening that was unfavourable to Russia as a US plot.

The situation developed like a well-constructed script: every element of the construction worked, perhaps independently, while at the same time obeying purely tactical imperatives. But seen through the media mirror, the situation looked as though it was being steered by an unseen director. Here, theory, interestingly, diverges from practice: media ecology insists on the complete absence of any script, on the objective evolution of social and industrial “organisms”.

The events of 2014 heralded a new tension between Russia and the US. Credit: Mikhail Kaluzhsky.The question of any script behind the Revolution of Dignity/Euromaidan, or the “Fascist-Banderite coup”, as it is described by the Kremlin-controlled media, is one for historians to unravel in the decades to come. But the scenarios ratcheted up in the press (the people and the state, the media and the analysts, intelligence and counterintelligence) were moving towards a certain logical point where a collapse would have to take place.

Scrolling through Facebook, I noticed, both in my own and others’ posts, a constant insistence on the “inevitability” of what was happening in Kyiv in the winter of 2013-2014. The amazement and horror evoked by each successive event gave many users a physical sensation of the scenario — and recognition of its logic.      

The crisis period in Kyiv, and subsequently in Crimea, demonstrated the existence of a fully functional aggressive media machine in Russia that not only carries out the wishes and commands of the “client”, but, as in the past, has a will of its own and its own sense of “what works” — one that possibly outweighs its actual politics.

The culmination of all this, which we have observed since the summer of 2014, is effectively an affirmation by Russia's media intermediaries of a job well done 

The previously crazy ideas of a global standoff between Russia and everyone else, predicted only yesterday by “experts” on politicised talk shows, are becoming part and parcel of the (verbal) politics of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The notion of a global anti-Russia conspiracy, as foretold by the geopolitical “fantasies” of the Eurasianist Alexander Dugin, materialised on the all-too-real frontline in Ukraine’s Donbas. The word “Russophobia” is shedding its inverted commas and becoming Vladimir Putin’s own favourite term. Any attempts to question what is happening, internally and externally, are almost immediately slated as anti-nationalist heresy.

The over-excited media machine is no longer satisfied with standard propaganda tools of the kind already analysed between the two world wars by Arthur Ponsonby and Clyde Miller, but also includes in its arsenal direct threats against both Russia’s neighbours and members of the opposing bloc. These threats consist of endless military exercises and sudden troop inspections, as well as aggressive PR for “the new technology of Russian military thought”. The appearance of the”hybrid war” meme is directly linked to the publication in the spring of 2013 of an article by the chief of Russia’s General Staff, in which he theorised about “new technology of Russian military thought”.

The culmination of all this, which we have observed since the summer of 2014, is effectively an affirmation by Russia's media intermediaries of a job well done — the return to a Cold War situation of sanctions, counter-sanctions and the complete dismantling of the structures of cooperation.

But can’t we talk?

A notable feature of this new, predominantly Russian, version of the Cold War is the constant wish to “talk about it”. This can be seen in the almost unhealthy interest in high-level contacts with the USA — the most unimportant and previously unpublicised meetings with the White House are now hot news.

The Americans, on the other hand, have no interest in such matters. The “Russian front” is low on the US’s political agenda, far below relations with China and the continuing Middle Eastern crisis. American priorities are also determined to a large extent by the economic relevance of one or other geopolitical tendency, and here Russia can’t compete with either the EU or China, or even with south-east Asia or Africa as either an export market or a source of raw materials. America’s media intermediaries are not hung up on Russia: it’s just a garnish, not a main course.

America’s media intermediaries are not hung up on Russia: it’s just a garnish, not a main course

It’s easy enough to sketch possible scenarios for the future, if only to assess, as I suggested in part one of this article, the need for a conversation between Russia and America “over the barriers” created by the media world and the “centre of power” that is to some extent hypnotised by it. Yes, an observer on the Russian side would see this dialogue as impossible, as their media intermediaries have convinced them of the proven perfidiousness and “Russophobia” of the west. And Americans, who tend to believe in sociology and professional political and military analysis, may also feel that there is no point in dialogue.

However, in our information age — with its ubiquitous communication networks and, despite new types of censorship, an ability to see and hear the other side through the technology of the internet and satellite TV — the situation is very different to what it was in 1985. And it isn’t just a matter of the absence of an iron curtain.

The scenario we are in today is the self-fulfilment of Putin’s Munich speech. A few mistakes, accidental or deliberate, in translation, exaggerated many times over by the media on both sides of the Atlantic, have led to the necessity for actions that were clearly wrong. In science, this is known as an accumulation of errors. One could of course suggest that this was what Russia’s leader hoped would happen — but this would be a clear case of conspiracy theory.

The fact that Moscow’s increasingly aggressive policies and information armies couldn’t bypass the west is another matter. A number of things have remerged in this situation — the word “deterrence”; the ideas dreamed up by US diplomat and Soviet expert George Kennan in 1945; NATO generals excited by the smell of new budgets, not to mention a totally Russian kind of media “shitfest” between the supporters of a balanced, realistic approach to dialogue with Moscow and those of a constructivist, forceful approach.

And all this — on a large enough scale to foul up any discussion — flowed through communication channels in real time to audiences who under the influence of the media had almost lost the ability to analyse events on their own.

In this communication process, full of obstacles and complications, different people may, and indeed should, have different goals. If we imagine that such a direct exchange of views could be set up, what could the Russian and American leaders talk about, and how?

An imagined dialogue

As I discussed in part one of my article, in 1986-1987, Ronald Reagan lobbied Mikhail Gorbachev to allow him to speak directly to the Soviet people on television.

Eventually, Reagan got his way and, in exchange, gave his Soviet counterpart the same opportunity. Regardless of the symbolic nature of this address (or, actually, because of it), Reagan’s speech played a pivotal role in the fate of the Soviet Union. Here, Reagan spoke not from a position of power — the president of the United States — but from the position of a regular American, troubled by years of confrontation, and who was perfectly able to differentiate between “Russians” and “the Communist party and the government”. Alongside other process taking place in the Soviet Union, this address demagnetised superpower confrontation.

Both Gorbachev and Reagan were involved in creating "dialogue" between the Soviet Union and the US during the late 1980s. (c) Mark Lennihan / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.I feel that Russia should explain, without resort to rhetorical clichés, what the USA and the west have done wrong; what is Russia specifically unhappy about in the current situation, and what sort of international relations it wishes to see in the future.

This is impossible to do if one uses the language of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or Putin’s own language. Given that this conversation should take place without interpreters or intermediaries, the words should be easily understood, even if not welcomed, by the US, and based on their real, not imagined historical constructs.

This presents our first and chief problem. Even if such an address was theoretically possible, it wouldn’t be able to avoid the use of concepts designed by Moscow — how to live in a world Russians would find fair and just.

The ordinary American has little interest in the supposed historical slights and humiliations their country has caused Russia, or why they need to be projected into the future. America and Americans have no inferiority complex or feeling of historical vulnerability and they are genuinely puzzled when they see the leader and the citizens of a large and powerful country constantly exhibiting these traits. The average businesslike and no-nonsense American believes that, even after a falling out, it makes more sense to come to a realistic pragmatic agreement about new working principles.

There is no place here for Putin’s traditional narrative, which came together in the early 2010s — lack of recognition for Russia’s valour during the Second World War, the Yalta Principles, “Crimea is ours” and so on.  Putin’s main problem is that this proposed encounter will be strategic: there can be no question of tactical concealment and deception. To agree to a direct meeting means laying your cards on the table and agreeing to play a straight game: the Russian president dislikes situations like this and feels uncomfortable in them.

A repeat of Reagan and Gorbachev’s experiment today would in fact probably cause more harm than good. But it’s time to talk about it, at least

Meanwhile, what can the “leader of the free world” say to Russia? Should he try to communicate to the Russians across the barrier of an unfriendly, even hostile media intermediary class? To say that Russians are deceived and lied to, to uphold the principles of free speech and political activity and of human rights.

For me, to talk to the Russian public using the language of “American logic” and “American common sense” today makes even the most positive suggestions almost meaningless today. Russia’s mass audience has lost any interest in America’s main export product after the dollar — the dream of freedom and a just society. A minority audience already hears “the message from Washington” and can even pick out its nuances, but the opinions of this minority have no effect on Kremlin policy (or only when, on the contrary, they trigger another round of clampdowns).

The peace loving and frank words that an American leader might use will be quickly discredited and pronounced hypocritical. Instead, can the “leader of the free world” clearly and succinctly lay down the thin red lines that that surround Russia in its attempt to revise the established world order? This is also doubtful, as the Russian national character prefers mobilisation when faced with a threat. Perhaps it is necessary to, at least verbally, recognise a “special role” and “special rights” for the Eurasian power after laying down a categorical zero tolerance of both hot and cold wars.

The American leader has a more complex task than the Russian: the Russian media’s fixation on the USA will mean that this conversation will turn into an excuse for a many months long and clearly unfriendly debate.

A repeat of Reagan and Gorbachev’s experiment today would in fact probably cause more harm than good. But it’s time to talk about it, at least.

About the author

Vasily Gatov is visiting fellow at the Center of Communication Leadership and Policy at USC Annenberg, and is a Russian media researcher and author based in Boston. He has more than 28 years of professional experience in domestic and international media, as well as media analysis, strategy and development.


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