Medvedev and Putin Call Up the Networks

Ria-NovostiMedvedev speaking with a CNN journalist during one of four interviews he gave foreign television networks Aug. 26.
Almost immediately after the war between Russia and Georgia erupted on Aug. 8 over the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia, a leading foreign news network requested an interview with President Dmitry Medvedev.

But nearly three weeks passed before Medvedev finally sat down with the network on Aug. 26, when Russia recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

"We were ready to meet with Medvedev at any hour, day or night," a producer with the network said on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk to the media.

The delay stood in stark contrast to the readiness of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was giving one live interview after the other to international networks and was widely seen to have won the propaganda war with Russia, though Russian forces crushed Georgia militarily.

Saakashvili's PR offensive was ridiculed in Russian state-controlled media as an example of Western bias. But Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin now appear to be trying to play catch-up, having given eight interviews with foreign networks over the past eight days.

Hours after announcing Russia's recognition of the two rebel Georgian republics, Medvedev gave interviews to CNN, BBC, the French network TF-1 and Al-Jazeera.

Putin followed suit with an Aug. 28 interview with CNN and Germany's ARD network the following day.

Euronews broadcast an interview with Medvedev on Monday, and Medvedev said in an interview broadcast Tuesday by Italian RAI television that Moscow would not negotiate with Saakashvili, whom he called a "political corpse."

Asked why Medvedev and Putin were so slow to present Russia's case to the international media, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said both men were too busy for interviews in the early days of the conflict because they were working hard to defend Russia's stance "on other levels."

"They could not afford to spend as much time and effort as Saakashvili did then," Peskov said. "Also, many Western media took a biased position from the very beginning."

Numerous Western journalists have said their efforts to cover the war impartially were hampered by Russia, particularly in the conflict zone, where access was tightly controlled for foreign reporters.

GPlus Europe, a London- and Brussels-based public relations firm hired by the Kremlin in 2006 to improve Russia's image in the West, did not respond to a telephone request for comment Wednesday in time for publication.

Medvedev and Putin understood that with no foreign television crews in South Ossetia when the conflict broke out, interviews with foreign media would have been detrimental to their case, political analysts said.

The president and prime minister would have been speaking of Russia's peacekeeping mission alongside images of Russian tanks moving into Georgia proper, said Alexei Makarkin, of the Center for Political Technologies.

Medvedev and Putin also dodged the international media in order to avoid questions about Russia's possible recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- hence their wave of interviews following the recognition, analysts said.

With the propaganda war largely over, the Kremlin is now carrying out damage control by using the international media to address Western elites rather than the general Western public, which has already largely sided with Georgia based on television coverage of the conflict, said Alexei Mukhin of the Center for Political Information.

Asked to comment on why Medvedev waited so long to talk to the Western press, a duty officer at the Kremlin press office referred all inquiries to another Kremlin spokesman.

Repeated calls to that spokesman's office went unanswered Wednesday.