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Analysis & Opinion
29.04.08 Medvedev’s Public Figure
Comment by Vladimir Frolov

Two weeks before being officially named as the next Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin has already appointed his own men, two of them senior Kremlin officials, to run his press operation, speech writing and protocol at the White House, the seat of the Russian Cabinet.

One has to appreciate Putin’s sense of humor--we do not yet know who the ministers in his cabinet are going to be, but we already know his press guy. Putin’s appointment of Dmitry Peskov as the prime minister’s press secretary signals two things.

One is that Putin intends to dominate the mass media scene as prime minister the way he did as president. Peskov spent the last eight years in the presidential press office. Lately, he has become Russia’s “face” to Western media and intellectuals, with regular public appearances at Washington-based and European think tanks.

His transfer to the White House indicates Putin’s desire to have a more visible presence in the media than any of his predecessors had. This fact foreshadows that under Putin, the prime minister would be treated as an equal, and perhaps even as a senior partner to the new president, not as his subordinate.

This is not good news for Dmitry Medvedev, but he could take a more optimistic view of Putin’s recent appointments. President Medvedev will have a free hand in building his own press operation, and will be able to shape his own relationship with the media.

Presidential press secretary Alexei Gromov (Peskov’s former boss), who in 2000 made history by tugging at Ted Koppel’s jacket, signaling the end of an interview with Putin when Koppel started asking some hard questions (Koppel showed the awkward scene on his Nightline program), is rumored to have greater political ambitions, and is likely to depart from the Kremlin.

This leaves the press secretary’s job open to Natalia Timakova, a former Kommersant reporter and the current chief of the presidential press service. Timakova worked to bolster Medvedev’s image at the time when the likelihood of him succeeding Putin was low. She continued to handle media outreach for the president-elect throughout the transition. Timakova, or anyone else who gets the job, will have to face some challenges in the relationship between the Kremlin and the media that have no precedents.

Medvedev will have to compete for media attention with a powerful and highly popular prime minister. Sharing the media spotlight with Putin is a loosing proposition for Medvedev, with negative political consequences. During the transition, the media continued to focus more on Putin than on Medvedev, to the effect that the public largely tuned out on Medvedev and his ratings tanked.

But the new president will not be without resources, and there are things he and his people can do to shape a qualitatively new relationship with the media, that would help balance out Putin’s advantage. Here is how.

Firstly, make the Kremlin into a more open place for reporters than it used to be under Putin. Introduce daily press briefings on what the President is trying to accomplish at home and abroad. Allow the briefings to be a free-for-all affair (not a heavily scripted exercise as it is at the Foreign Ministry). Encourage Kremlin officials to regularly appear at the Kremlin press-briefings or to engage reporters on their own, shaping the strategic presidential messages that first need to be carefully developed and approved.

Make yourself regularly available for in-depth interviews by major Russian news organizations. Putin has not granted a major interview to a Russian newspaper since 2000.

Make it a rule that all major presidential policy initiatives are reported first by the Russian media. Putin and his press operation had a strange habit of breaking major news to foreign media outlets. From this perspective, while good on substance, Medvedev’s first major media appearance following the election, a sweeping interview with the Financial Times was a political blunder. It sent an unsubtle signal that the president-elect does not respect the Russian media and the Russian people enough to inform them, and not the foreign audience, about his plans first. It is unimaginable that a U.S. president-elect would give his first major interview to a foreign newspaper. Putin, for obvious reasons, despised the Russian media, and serious political reporting in this country started degrading.

Change the style of media appearances. Putin’s media availabilities have always been tightly orchestrated. He was largely shown chairing government meetings and conversing with carefully screened “ordinary people.” His only substantive engagement with the media occurred during joint appearances with foreign leaders, where foreign reporters were allowed to ask embarrassing questions (the latest question about his personal life, however, was asked by a Russian reporter).

Avoid the two media formats that Putin practiced with diminishing returns – his once a year on the air “conversation with the people,” and his annual mega press-conferences. The former implies a condescending attitude of a tzar, who once a year stoops to listen to people’s grievances, while its tight orchestration makes it an increasingly embarrassing show. The latter is too unwieldy to allow for a meaningful discussion of policy issues, while the frequency of the occurrence sends a clear signal of disdain for the media. Instead, make your press conferences more frequent, and try to focus them on a specific issue. Also, avoid the sad spectacle of showing the sessions of your Security Council meetings on Saturdays on TV, without saying what was actually discussed. If the meetings are truly classified - do not show them at all, if there is something you want the public to hear – brief reporters on it.

You used to meet informally with regional reporters on the campaign trail. This is a good practice and it should be continued with the national media in the Kremlin. Engage the most serious political reporters personally, inviting them to breakfast or lunch, or having in-depth conversations with them on board of the presidential plane. Appear regularly on a Sunday political television show, engaging the host in a gloves-off discussion on policy. Having someone like Georgy Bovt or Svetlana Babayeva, serious and perceptive political reporters, interview you on the air, would do a lot for asserting your media primacy and expanding press freedom in this country.

Make good use of your talent and skills of a university professor to deliver regular policy addresses at major Russian universities. Use the format of a public lecture to students and faculty, as a way to engage the nation in a serious conversation on where you want to take the country.

Finally, engage the Western media in a way different from Putin’s. Hiring Ketchum will not be enough. It would require a more substantial in-house operation for message development, message control, and media outreach than the one employed by the Kremlin before.

As your international spokesman, appoint someone with an excellent command of the English language and extensive experience in dealing with Western media, with the authority to speak for the president on the record. Allow him or her to regularly appear on international TV networks, to deliver your message to the outside world. Make your senior policy advisors available to foreign reporters for interviews and comments. Write your own opinion pieces on major issues in Russian and foreign newspapers, including respected policy journals like Foreign Affairs.

In the tough situation that Medvedev is facing, the media is not his enemy. It could actually be his powerful ally. I wonder if he and his people understand that.
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