Russian President’s Potemkin Press Conference

Posted May 20th, 2011 at 8:20 am (UTC+0)
5 comments

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev prepares for the first major news conference of his 3-year presidency, at the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo Photo: RIA Novosti - Dmitry Astakhov

The empty box said it all.

Each reporter was issued a neat white plastic box, complete with notepad, pen and computer memory stick. Each item was embossed: “Press Conference of the President of the Russian Federation Dimitry Medvedev.”

But unlike most press kits, there was no press release, no biography of the president and no glossy photos of the great man.

Indeed, what was billed as the first major press conference of President Medvedev turned out to be like what many here think of his 1,000 day presidency – all talk and no substance.

In Russian terms, it was the Potemkin press conference.

The form was right: the live nationwide television broadcast, the hall packed to the rafters with 800 reporters, the wall of television cameras, and the explosion of camera flashes every time the president took a sip of tea. The president luxuriated in picking and choosing among dozens of hands and notebooks waving in the air, as reporters essentially implored, “pick me, pick me.”

Admittedly, the quality of questions from the reporters was generally low: How can I find a parking space in Moscow? Why do we have to get our cars inspected every year? Where do you get your designer jeans? And, from a reporter flown in from the Arctic, will there be federal help this year for reindeer herders?

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev walks into a press conference packed with 800 journalists at Skolkovo. Dmitry Astakhov/RIA Novosti

Amid the chaff, some substantive questions were asked. The fourth questioner finally asked the question that most Russians presumably want answered: With an election in 10 months, will you run for reelection as president?

The president good naturedly chided the press for waiting so long to pop the big one.

Reporters held their breath.

Eight-hundred souvenir pens poised above 800 souvenir notebooks.

Then the answer came.

“A press conference of this kind is not the right occasion for such an announcement,” the 45-year-old leader of the largest nation in the world told the press he had summoned to the day-long event. “I think decisions of this kind need to be taken and announced in a somewhat different format. . . . If I make such a decision, I will certainly announce it.”

Huh?

Are we here, assembled in a faraway Moscow suburb, as bit players, as window dressing, for a pretend press conference?
The morning after press reviews were scathing.

“Mr. President, what was that all about?” Alexander Minkin wrote in the mass-circulation Moskovsky Komsomolets. He called the president “a Kremlin dreamer.”

President Medvedev holds a cup of tea during his marathon 2 hour 15 minute press conference. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin

Vedemosti, the business daily, published a front page story saying: “Dmitry Medvedev’s first major news conference turned out to be strange: he neither summed up the results nor shared his plans for the future.”

Lilia Shevtsova, a Kremlinologist for Carnegie Moscow research center, wrote on the site of Echo of Moscow radio station: “All of that looked not merely helpless. In front of the entire country Medvedev was committing political hara-kiri. Why did he have to take the stage if he has got nothing to say? Endless gabbing about modernization without the ambition or readiness to do anything undermines any idea of change.”

Indeed, after three years of talk, many here feel President Medvedev has little to show in the way of action. Lacking action on his resume, he has lost credibility.

At the Wednesday press conference, president criticized the United States and NATO for proceeding with building a European missile defense without including Russia. Such a path, he said, could force Russia into a new arms race, forcing it to increase its nuclear strike capability, and creating “a new Cold War.”

The following morning, Ellen Barry’s account of the Medvedev press conference in The New York Times did not mention the Cold War threat.

When a Russian president threatens an arms race with Washington, and a Times reporter does not bother to mention it, you can see that the president has a credibility problem. (Barry won a Pulitzer Prize last month for her Russia coverage, so her credibility is hard to dispute).

During the marathon two hour and 15 minute press conference, the president’s political mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, cast a palpable shadow over the hall. Although both men are equal in the polls, everyone knows who wears the pants in Russia’s ruling tandem.

And some of those pants are forest green camouflage. During the Medvedev event, several reporters were spied scanning the online version of a new interview with Prime Minister Putin in Outdoor Life magazine. Although there are no new bare-chested fishing shots, there are new action pictures of Putin with an Amur tiger, harpooning a whale, and clambering over rocks.

OK, OK, the link is: http://www.outdoorlife.com/articles/hunting/2011/05/one-one-vladimir-putin?page=0%2C0

The questions by reporter Gayne C. Young were not much better than some of the softball pitches lobbed to President Medvedev on Wednesday.

Outdoor Life: “Because of your work in conservation and given the incredible adventures you have participated in, you are probably the coolest man in politics. Please do not be modest: Are you the coolest man in politics?”

Reporters from Siberia and Moscow gathered for a press conference, expecting a major announcment.Dmitry Astakhov/RIA Novosti

Vladimir Putin: “I do not think I am ready to wear the laurel of “the coolest man in politics,” and actually I do not find anything out of the ordinary in my work in conservation or my active lifestyle.”

Desperate for political meat to chew on, I went back today to my presidential press conference kit box.
VOA Moscow producer Diana Markosian had warned me I was too old school.

No one hands out reproducible glossies anymore.

“It’s all on that memory stick,” affirmed Diana, who celebrated her twenty something birthday on Tuesday.

Chastened, I hurried to my laptop and shoved in my presidential press conference souvenir memory stick.

The computer file flashed on the screen.

I contentedly clicked on contents.

The message read: “This Folder is Empty.”

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

5 responses to “Russian President’s Potemkin Press Conference”

  1. Gennady says:

    James!

    With your American practicality, you were dissatisfied, weren’t you?

    But President Medvedev couldn’t behave otherwise.

    He is severely restricted in his actions.

    The reason is the Russian establishment hasn’t yet agreed upon the future President.

    Putin has grown old for more 12 years as the President. There’s an opinion gaining momentum and circulating that he would be a disaster for Russia, entrenching the system that had been growing increasingly corrupt.

    So, the current President conferenced when there wasn’t anything particular to conference on.

  2. saucymugwump says:

    Gennady wrote: “Putin has grown old for more 12 years as the President”

    Putin has a long way to go until he reaches Brezhnev-style decrepitude. The former is only 58, while the latter died at 75, and Putin is not a couch potato like Brezhnev was. Just think of the possibilities: live television coverage of an aged Putin exiting a car on a national holiday, being surprised, and farting loudly in response, just like Brezhnev. Putin wants to return to the heady days of the Soviet Union and petrified leaders were usually an important part of that. When Putin wears armpit-to-armpit medals, the end will be nigh. All together now: 12 MORE YEARS!

  3. Pyotr says:

    There is an old children’s anecdote about the characters of a popular soviet cartoon movies Gena the Crocodile and Cheburashka. Once upon a time Gena decided to teach Cheburashka how to drive a car but Cheburashka was so small that he could only sit right on the driving wheel while Gena was actually driving. A militiaman demanded to stop the car and said “Уберите с()руля!” That is a pun which only Russians understand. So Medvedev now is just a “srul”(little mess maker) with big flappy ears when the real driver and the crocodile is Putin, and he is the one with big teeth! It would be hard to snatch Russia from his jaws.

  4. Andrey says:

    Thanks, James,
    very nice post, the conference was really a circus, funny, if not so sad…
    Your post should be well distributed in the world, so leaders, businessmen and ordinary people understand Russia better, at least who is ruling it…

    • Ruslan says:

      I think that the political status quo in our country is already well known to the whole world…the problem is what shall we (citizens of this country) do with all this circus? And it is not funny…i have a little daughter and would like to have more children but I fear, for their future, fear to let them enter in such wild environment without any guaranties, protection, possibility to make plans for at least 3-5 years…

About

About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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