A New Spin Doctor Tries to Present 'Strong' Yeltsin as Warm and Fuzzy
MOSCOW — The traditional way for Russian President Boris Yeltsin to make his first public appearance after his heart operation earlier this month was simple enough: Cameras would be invited into his first meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and the two senior statesmen would be shown manfully discussing great matters.
Instead, the Kremlin team of imagemakers wanted something less traditional and more human. So Russian television viewers and newspaper readers on Wednesday saw warm, winning images of the president on his first post-surgery walk outdoors; his granddaughter Masha adjusting the scarf around his neck, and his wife, Naina, at his side.
This was a grandfatherly Yeltsin who admitted he felt weak, but also a presidential Yeltsin who sent his aides and ministers a stern warning that they would answer for their actions while he is out of the office.
Mr. Yeltsin's new press secretary, Sergei Yastrzhembski, has managed to inject an unaccustomed humanity into Yeltsin's public image in his three-month Kremlin career.
Persuading the president
Especially unaccustomed to the new approach is Yeltsin himself, says Mr. Yastrzhembski. When Yastrzhembski took the job in August, the big news was not just policy matters like the war in Chechnya and the economy. It was Yeltsin and the state of his health. In the vacuum of information about the president, a spate of stories appeared asking who was governing the country.
Yastrzhembski, Yeltsin's chief of staff Anatoli Chubais, and Yeltsin's family persuaded the president to speak openly about his health problems. But they met great resistance from Yeltsin himself.
Not only did such openness break a historic taboo about acknowledging the health problems of Kremlin leaders, but such matters were not even discussed in the Yeltsin family, Yastrzhembski says.
"It was not a political problem, but a human one," he says. Yeltsin has a sense of himself as a strong man and a fighter, "and any kind of weakness is unacceptable to him."
But Yeltsin was persuaded to address the Russian public on television Sept. 5, explaining the condition of his health and why he was choosing surgery. The next day, newspapers tagged Yeltsin's openness as unprecedented in Russian history and either wished him well or at least refrained from attack.
"We registered an absolutely different climate in the media" says Yastrzhembski - one that was more sympathetic and understanding of Yeltsin's problems.
Journalists agree. Valeri Vyzhutovich, Kremlin, correspondent for the newspaper Izvestia, says Yastrzhembski and the presidential team have created a warmer image for Yeltsin in the past three months, especially through the extensive use of Yeltsin's family. His daughter, Tatiana Dyachenko, has become an important adviser. His wife, Naina, grants interviews generously to the Russian media to talk about her husband.
Yastrzhembski, says Vladmir Aventov, host of a daily public affairs program on the national radio network Radio One, "has narrowed the gap dramatically between Yeltsin the person and Yeltsin the statesman."
But Mr. Vyzutovich does not credit the Yeltsin team with any new openness, just with image-making skill. "They had to be open about the president's illness," he says. "It was impossible to hide."
Yastrzhembski argues that it was a difficult step for the president to take, but that the September speech was a landmark in setting a tone of Kremlin openness.
But whether the warmer, fuzzier Yeltsin is seen by Russians as a better president is a question not yet answered.