Russian TV Shines Warmly on a Likely Successor to Putin
MOSCOW, Feb. 1 -- Every Sunday morning, two favorites of President Vladimir Putin play prominent supporting roles on a television game show called "Happy Bus." In sunny clips spliced into the show's airtime, Dmitri Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov hand out awards and urge young people in general to live healthy lives.
Ostensibly, the two men have perfectly straightforward reasons for appearing on the show: Each week, one team of contestants is sponsored by Gazprom, the state-controlled energy giant chaired by Medvedev. The opposing team is sponsored by the New Generation Foundation, headed by Ivanov, who is also defense minister.
But "Happy Bus" is widely viewed here as proof of the Kremlin's ability to commandeer the airwaves -- even the most trifling show -- to aid Putin in anointing a successor. By most accounts, the president has narrowed his choice to Medvedev or Ivanov, and over the last year each man's image, particularly Medvedev's, has been rigorously burnished. "Happy Bus" debuted in May on NTV, a network owned by a Gazprom subsidiary.
With the centralization of power in the Kremlin, Russian politics has become ever more tightly scripted, and genuine electoral competition has withered. Whoever turns out to be Putin's nominee will dominate television and almost certainly ride unimpeded through the presidential elections in early 2008, analysts said.
"Putin, Medvedev and Ivanov are the three main heroes, the three main characters on the news," said Anna Kachkayeva, a professor of broadcast journalism at Moscow State University. "It's a command from the administration."
Producers at Russian television stations, including the makers of "Happy Bus," declined to discuss coverage of Ivanov and Medvedev.
In presidential politics, Russia has an electoral college of one -- Putin. When Vladimir Ustinov, the former prosecutor general and a perceived favorite of the security services, started making some very president-in-waiting noises last year, Putin fired him. He was rehired as justice minister, a much less influential position.
Putin himself denies he is the decider. "There will be no successors. There will be candidates for the post of president of Russia," he said Thursday at his annual news conference, which this year ran to three hours and 30 minutes and was attended by about 1,200 journalists. "I reserve the right to express my preference. But I will only do it once the election campaign begins."
Since the reelection of Boris Yeltsin in 1996, when a group of media tycoons threw the full weight of their television stations behind his faltering candidacy and demonized his Communist opponent, tight management of broadcast journalism has been a critical instrument in Russian presidential elections, including Putin's two campaigns.
But unlike in 1996, when the power of television was wielded by wealthy businessmen, today those media assets are controlled by the state or companies loyal to the Kremlin.
Ivanov, 54, has long been well known both at home and abroad as minister of defense. Medvedev, 41, was an obscure figure until 15 months ago.
In November 2005, Medvedev and Ivanov were simultaneously made first deputy prime ministers, in addition to their other titles. Since then, Medvedev's public image, down to his haircut (shorter and more stylish), weight (he's clearly lost a few pounds) and choice of clothes (more casual), has been carefully refashioned.
The makeover has become the talk of the town. The wooden, cautious and loyal official of a year ago has become a self-confident and assertive politician tinged with some very Putinesque characteristics -- in particular, his occasionally brusque scoldings, sometimes directed at other ministers, delivered with the colloquial phrases and tightly coiled physicality that many Russians love in their president.
Speaking in November about improving health care and access to drugs, Medvedev said: "There are swindlers who manufacture pharmaceuticals. Then there are other swindlers who sell those pharmaceuticals, and there are still other swindlers who act as intermediaries using state funds. The situation in the pharmaceutical industry is disgusting."
Medvedev, who is married and has one child, is a lawyer by training and first worked with Putin in the city administration of St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Putin brought him to the Kremlin, where he became chief of staff in the presidential administration. He is regarded as a relatively liberal counterweight to the staffers around Putin who served in the security services. Medvedev has no background in the KGB or its successor agencies.
He never publicly criticizes Putin, however. And he defends Gazprom, where the Kremlin placed him in charge in 2002, from charges that it is secretive, bloated and inefficient, and is used by the state as a political weapon to punish neighboring countries. On television recently, he called Gazprom a "crucial Russian company" and noted that its capitalization has jumped from $10 billion to $225 billion under state control.
Increasingly, Medvedev speaks of his modest background. "Just like everyone else, I lived in the kinds of apartments that used to be given to Soviet citizens, first a communal one and later a cramped apartment in St. Petersburg," he said in a television interview in November. "And like everyone else, I went, and still go, to a polyclinic," the state-run outpatient facilities that many Russians avoid.
For all the campaign-style insights he offers into his background, Medvedev remains studiously ambiguous about his ambitions. "I find it distressing that I have been made a participant in some sort of race," he said.
Nonetheless, he is now the second-most-popular politician in Russia after Putin, according to opinion polls and analysts.
In a poll conducted in November by the independent Levada Center, 38 percent of respondents said they would vote for Medvedev for president, making him the leading candidate. Ivanov trailed with 23 percent. Little more than a year ago, Medvedev's rating was barely above zero.
While image-building is not unique to Russia, and Medvedev's new position in government ensured he would get more news coverage, the almost universally friendly treatment he has received on Russian television has been striking.
Among 2,064 news stories on Medvedev in 2006, there was not a single negative report on the news broadcasts of six television channels, including the three major national stations, according to a survey by Medialogia, an analytical group in Moscow. There were 17 negative reports on Ivanov, most of them centered on a brutal hazing incident in the military to which he was slow to respond, according to Medialogia.
Other potential candidates are not treated so kindly. In the same period, there was not a single positive report on Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister and Putin critic who has said he may seek the presidency. Of the 40 stories in which Kasyanov was the main subject, 60 percent were negative and the balance neutral, according to Medialogia statistics.
The Kremlin declined a request to allow a Washington Post reporter to accompany Medvedev on a typical daily event; he is normally covered by a small pool of reporters.
Assigned as a frontman for the government's spending priorities -- generous social programs to revamp health care, education and housing and reverse a population decline -- Medvedev has been transformed into Santa Claus in the public mind, according to Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin.
"He has good PR, doing good, practical things for the country," Nikonov said. "Every image is deliberately cultivated, but that is not different than what goes on at the White House."
Last week was typical. Three of the national channels, ORT, RTR and NTV, ran expansive reports Wednesday night on a meeting chaired by Medvedev in which he talked about raising the birthrate and other projects. Medvedev held up a certificate that will guarantee cash payments to women who have a second child, and his remarks were spliced with images of cooing babies in maternity wards.
No critic of the management of the so-called National Projects was quoted on any of those news reports.
"The National Projects are an imitation of activity," Ivan Melnikov, deputy chairman of the Communist Party, said in parliament last month. "Upbeat TV pictures that we see practically every day have nothing to do with the real state of things."
"He is being built up, and he is changing himself," said Igor Bunin, head of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, referring to Medvedev. "The first task was to get people to recognize him. . . . The next task was to associate him with most pleasant things from the state. He cuts all the ribbons now.
"At the beginning, he was soft, like a teddy bear, but now he seems much stronger. Like Putin, he can summon up some thunder and lightning when he criticizes incompetent officials."
Bunin added, "There may be no final decision, but he is candidate number one, with Ivanov in reserve."
The Washington Post, February 2, 2007, Page A01