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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

PARTY LINES: Old PR Man for New Mess




Want to know where political power is moving in Russia? Just follow Sergei Yastrzhembsky. Remember him?


Back in the days when energetic young reform ruled in the Kremlin, Yastrzhembsky was Boris Yeltsin's slick cosmopolitan spokesman. He was the Kremlin's smooth-talking official voice and spin-meister who managed to convince most of the world's media that economic reform was moving forward and prosperity was just around the corner.


Yastrzhembsky did his job, as it was, well - at least until the August 1998 financial crash destroyed the myth of Russia's emerging market. And later, when Yastrzhembsky found himself on the wrong side of the Kremlin's perennial intrigue, Yeltsin sacked him. According to media reports, Yastrzhembsky had lobbied hard to have Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov appointed as prime minister, angering Yeltsin's inner circle which saw Luzhkov as a mortal enemy. Then, when it appeared to nearly everybody Luzhkov's Fatherland-All Russia was on the road to becoming Russia's new party of power, Yastrzhembsky moved to their side.


But Fatherland-All Russia finished a disappointing third in last month's State Duma election and rumors immediately started circling that Yastrzhembsky was leaving Luzhkov's entourage.


Finally, on Thursday acting Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin appointed him as his assistant. If there ever was a bellwether of where political power lies - or appears to be heading - Yastrzhembsky is it. With Putin, Yastrzhembsky will be stuck with the unenviable task of spinning the Chechen war, dealing with the media to smooth over Russia's tattered image. According to the Kremlin, he will be in charge of "coordinating the flow of information concerning Chechnya."


A career diplomat, Yastrzhembsky is no stranger to handling tough public relations tasks. It was he, after all, who had to clean up after Yeltsin's frequent public spectacles.


He is also adept at handling the media. Covering Yeltsin and U.S. President Bill Clinton's 1997 summit meeting in Helsinki, I was impressed with Yastrzhembsky's professionalism. His press center was well run and he showed an uncanny ability to handle - or spin - the Western press. Foreign reporters watched in awe as he fielded questions in several languages without a translator and without missing a beat.


A former Foreign Ministry spokesman and ambassador to Slovakia, Yastrzhembsky is seen to be angling for the top job at the Foreign Ministry. This latest appointment by Putin has all the appearances of a proving ground for just that job.


Meanwhile, foreign leaders have been parading through Moscow to urge Putin to stop the Chechen war. A delegation from the Council of Europe has been in Chechnya since earlier this week.


Chechnya also figured prominently in Russian government talks late this week with Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini and Germany's Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is scheduled to visit Moscow next week and the subject will likely be on her agenda too.


The Kremlin is also launching trial balloons about a peace in Chechnya. On Wednesday, the state-controlled Itar-Tass news agency reported that Chechen guerrilla leaders had arrived in Moscow for peace talks. Pro-Moscow Chechen leader Malik Saidullayev later confirmed this. And on Thursday, Saidullayev said that he had met with Anatoly Kvashnin, the chief of the armed forces general staff, to broker a deal.


Saidullayev also said a group of influential Chechen commanders controlling up to 7,000 fighters are in Moscow negotiating a switch to the Russian side if they are offered protection and a role in the post-war Chechen administration.


The Kremlin has not confirmed that a deal is in the works, but something is clearly afoot. In Russia, things like Saidullayev's initiative are not leaked to the press - and are certainly not reported by the loyal Itar-Tass - without a reason.


Yastrzhembsky's appointment comes at a time when the Chechen conflict - on which so much of Putin's prospects rest - is reaching a critical stage. On the battlefield, Russian troops are on the verge of being bogged down in a drawn out bloodbath. Abroad, Moscow is facing increased criticism and possible isolation.


Maybe Yastrzhembsky was recruited to help clean up the diplomatic and public relations mess as the Kremlin seeks a face-saving end to the conflict.


Jonas Bernstein is on vacation.