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Russia: Information Policy Chief To Brush Up Kremlin's Image

This week (Monday), Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Sergei Yastrzhembsky -- until now the government's official spokesman on Chechnya -- to head a newly created department intended to coordinate all information policy inside the Kremlin. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini talked with analysts about the importance of Yastrzhembsky's new job.

Moscow, 22 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- President Vladimir Putin's promotion of Sergei Yastrzhembsky to chief of all information policy in the Kremlin comes as no surprise to many Russian political analysts. They say that the man who for the past 14 months has been the government's only spokesman on Chechen policy -- and successfully kept many journalists from entering the separatist republic -- is the natural choice to help the Kremlin appear more communicative.

At a news conference yesterday for selected journalists, Yastrzhembsky said that his new "Department for Information Policy" was created in response to media complaints that the Kremlin was not informative enough on important events. He said that -- in addition to working with the foreign media and coordinating the work of government press service -- he would be working on improving the way authorities react to what he called "extreme situations."

Analyst Dmitri Orlov, who has been a public relations adviser in more than 20 Russian election campaigns, says Yastrzhembsky's promotion is logical because the Kremlin is in need of brushing up its image.

Orlov notes that government-orchestrated events such as Putin's much-publicized "battle" with Russia's business oligarchs early last year went over well with the public. But, he says, the Kremlin stumbled whenever it was taken by surprise -- most glaringly last August, just after the "Kursk" submarine disaster.

At the time, Putin remained for days on holiday at the Black Sea, putting off any public statement and allowing officials to voice contradictory statements. To many, the Kremlin seemed insensitive to human tragedy and mainly preoccupied with covering up its mistakes.

Another major Kremlin slip-up came earlier this month when the pro-Putin Unity faction in the Duma first supported a communist no-confidence vote and then, with unconvincing explanations, changed its position. The abrupt turn-around left the Kremlin in a political mess. To put an end to such blunders, Orlov says, Yastrzhembsky was the obvious choice.

"It's not about talent. It's about finding a talking head that can react more or less operationally to current events, to those events that [are not provoked ] by the Kremlin. [In the past,] we saw that sometimes the Kremlin was not even capable of spelling out its position on different issues. [Before] the no-confidence vote, you had all kinds of commentaries coming from all sides, but we didn't know the president's stance. It's possible that Putin did not want to speak out personally, but then there should be some kind of talking head to do it."

Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, says Yastrzhembsky's work as press secretary to former President Boris Yeltsin also played a role in his promotion:

"I think it is a tribute to [his] past, to his work as press secretary, when in 1997 and 1998 Yastrzhembsky played an extremely important role as President Boris Yeltsin's press secretary inside the presidential administration."

In August 1996 Yastrzhembsky -- then a career diplomat just returned from Bratislava where he was Russia's first ambassador to Slovakia -- was plucked from his job at the Foreign Ministry to assist ailing President Boris Yeltsin. This was a month after Yeltsin's re-election and three months before the president's open-heart surgery.

Yastrzhembsky's talent as a spokesman was put to good use in talking Yeltsin out of almost any situation. It was Yastrzhembsky who, just two months before the president's quadruple coronary bypass, told journalists that Yeltsin had a "firm" handshake and was in no need of heart surgery.

Yastrzhembsky also repaired some of Yeltsin's off-center public remarks, often reinterpreting them to suggest what Yeltsin had actually meant to say. But even Yastrzhembsky was ruffled when, during a public visit to Sweden in December 1997, Yeltsin said he was in Finland and then announced Russia would unilaterally cut its nuclear warheads by one-third.

Still, Yastrzhembsky managed to deal with that as well. He said that Yeltsin was "a bit tired," explaining that what Yeltsin actually meant to say was that the United States and Russia could both push a bit further in their arms reductions negotiations.

Equally important in his promotion, other analysts say, has been Yastrzhembsky's coordination of the Kremlin's flow of information on Chechnya since January 2000. He set up a special accreditation system and special helicopter tours for selected journalists, and in effect had a monopoly on official information regarding the war.

Many Russian and foreign journalists blame Yastrzhembsky in no small part for what they regard as the Kremlin's partial information blackout on news events in Chechnya. They point out that Yastrzhembsky hotly denied the bombing of Chechen civilians even in the face of eyewitness evidence to the contrary. For them, Yastrzhembsky was less the Kremlin's information than disinformation man on Chechnya.