Putin Friend Tapped for Image Post

A press center aimed at improving Russia's image abroad is set to open in central Moscow next month and could be overseen by a friend and judo partner of President Vladimir Putin.

The National Information Center will accommodate media events for a pool of Russian and foreign journalists, Ivan Makushok, spokesman for the State Council for the Union State of Russia and Belarus, said Monday.

The center "will give the floor to governors and leading politicians," said Makushok, who is to chair the center's board of directors.

The center's aims include improving Russia's image abroad, promoting national projects and providing journalists with first-hand contacts in the presidential administration, Makushok said.

The supervisory board will be made up of around a dozen media representatives, Makushok said. Izvestia editor Vladimir Mamontov and Ekho Moskvy radio editor Alexei Venediktov have both agreed to join the board, he said.

An Ekho Moskvy spokesman said Venediktov was unavailable to comment, while Mamontov said through his spokeswoman that he had received an "unofficial invitation" to join.

State Duma Deputy Vasily Shestakov --a long-time friend of Putin's and a fellow judo enthusiast -- said he had been invited to head up the supervisory board. Shestakov represents pro-Kremlin party A Just Russia in the Duma.

The center will be housed in a 1,000-square-meter space at Staraya Ploshchad 10, near the Kitai-Gorod metro station, Kommersant reported Monday. The presidential administration is located at Staraya Ploshchad 4.

The center is the brainchild of the presidential administration and City Hall, Kommersant cited sources as saying. Neither a Kremlin spokeswoman nor Alexander Pogorelov, spokesman for the City Hall's International Relations Department, could confirm the report.

Billionaire Roman Abramovich, Evraz Group shareholder Alexander Abramov and Boris Hait, head of the insurance company Spasskiye Vorota, will finance the center, Kommersant reported.

Spokespeople for Abramovich and Hait did not return requests for comments Monday. Evraz Holding spokeswoman Tatyana Drachuk could not confirm the information.