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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: PR Aides No Help to Yeltsin




President Boris Yeltsin has had rotten luck with his PR people. The recent scandalous interview given by his deputy chief of staff Igor Shabdurasulov to the daily Russky Telegraf is fresh proof of that.


Shabdurasulov, appointed to the Kremlin only a few months ago after serving as chief spokesman for Viktor Chernomyrdin's Cabinet, said some outrageously disloyal things by Kremlin standards. He said it would be best if Yeltsin gave up all thoughts of running for a third term; he believed Yeltsin is too exhausted to govern efficiently after 2000. Yeltsin's chief spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, immediately came out with a statement saying his colleague had been speaking only for himself. Kremlin chief of staff, Valentin Yumashev, was mad at Shabdurasulov for saying in the interview that Yumashev probably shared his views.


Shabdurasulov only replied that he "had not seen the full text of the interview." A lame excuse coming from someone whom reporters know as a professional PR man. One explanation is that Shabdurasulov is seeking a job with another presidential candidate. But that is doubtful: Politicians want their press secretaries to be loyal above all, and showing disloyalty to the previous master would put off other potential employers.


Shabdurasulov, quite simply, messed up. That -- or disloyalty to the boss -- is not new in the Kremlin press service.


From the time Yeltsin became head of the Russian parliament, in 1990, until May 1992, Pavel Voshchanov was Yeltsin's press secretary. He was easily reachable and his comments were colorful and to the point. But he clearly was not himself a PR man. In 1992, he went back to writing for the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, where he has since published many articles lambasting Yeltsin and the Kremlin bureaucracy.


Yeltsin learned that his chief spokesman had to be someone faithful to the early post-Soviet democratic ideals and loyal to him personally. He picked Vyacheslav Kostikov, whose journalism days were behind him and who had done a stint at UNESCO. Again, Yeltsin had no luck. Kostikov was devoted to his chief, but his devotion was that of a protective, doting relative, not a bureaucrat. In situations where Yeltsin was inclined toward quiet diplomacy or intrigues, Kostikov defended him fiercely and publicly. He was mostly speaking on behalf of Yeltsin as Kostikov saw him, not as Yeltsin viewed himself and his policies.


Besides, Yeltsin's then powerful bodyguard chief, Alexander Korzhakov, hated Kostikov's guts. In his memoirs, Korzhakov later described the spokesman as a despicable, cowardly homosexual. The bodyguard wanted his friend Sergei Nosovets to run the press service, and he briefly got his wish when Kostikov got the sack in the fall of 1994 and was sent to the Vatican as Russia's ambassador and Nosovets remained as head of the presidential staff's Information Directorate.


In the Vatican, Kostikov penned a memoir accusing Yeltsin of an insatiable hunger for power. In Moscow, Nosovets was quietly shunted into the background as Yeltsin picked television journalist Sergei Medvedev as his press secretary. Medvedev was loyal to Yeltsin, not Korzhakov. However, he was not fond of speaking when the press and the public needed him to speak.


Medvedev killed his career in Kremlin PR in July 1995, during one of the more and more frequent bouts of Yeltsin's illness. The presidential press service had released photographs of Yeltsin that were supposed to prove he was well, but were found to be old pictures from the archive. Medvedev lied to journalists, insisting the photo was up-to-date. He was so widely mistrusted that Yeltsin had to replace him with Sergei Yastrzhembsky after his election in 1996.


Yastrzhembsky was by far the best press secretary Yeltsin has ever had. He has handled Yeltsin's illnesses with all possible candor, calming turbulent markets. Yastrzhembsky has never failed to comment on major matters of public interest while never straying from his boss' line. He has handled his job deftly and cheerfully. But it was necessary to bring into the Kremlin a PR man with a status almost equal to Yastrzhembsky's -- Shabdurasulov. Now one spokesman has to disclaim another's words.


Kostikov is now deputy chief of the MOST-Media holding; Medvedev is PR chief for Unified Energy Systems; Voshchanov still writes for Komsomolskaya Pravda. Having been Yeltsin's press secretaries has clearly helped their careers, and it is unlikely Shabdurasulov will sink into total obscurity after his strange outburst. Yeltsin alone did not gain anything from these aides' activities.