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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clues on TV That Putin Remains the King

APDmitry Medvedev meeting Vladimir Putin on May 12.
The day of the government reshuffle last month, President Dmitry Medvedev met with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin to discuss the changes. Kremlin watchers mused that the meeting, prominently broadcast on state television, offered a revealing clue about who actually held the reins -- Putin dominated the session from the left side of the desk -- the same seat he had occupied during his eight years as president -- while Medvedev sat quietly on the right.

Kremlin and White House spokespeople scrambled to downplay the seating arrangement as insignificant.

Medvedev, however, soon slid across to the other side of the desk. At his most recent meeting with Putin, at his Gorky residence on Wednesday, Medvedev dominated from the left side, while Putin largely listened on the right.

At a time of rampant speculation about whether Russia's real leader is Medvedev or Putin, investors and analysts alike are searching for clues -- any clues -- from the notoriously reticent government. If state news broadcasts are any indication -- and many believe that they are -- Putin remains firmly at the helm, despite the fact that he has changed seats with Medvedev.

On the surface, Medvedev seems to be out ahead. In the first month since his May 7 inauguration, he has been mentioned 811 times on state television, while Putin has only been mentioned 639 times, according to data compiled by Medialogia, a media research center. Furthermore, Medvedev received 19.3 hours of airtime compared with 18.3 hours for Putin on the 1,142 news programs broadcast on state-controlled Channel One, Rossia and NTV from May 7 to June 3, Medialogia said.

But even though Medvedev outranked Putin in name-dropping and airtime, the television channels conveyed the distinct impression that Putin was the main player, Irina Petrovskaya, a television critic for Izvestia, said Friday.

"It seems that TV channels believe that Putin is the most important person," Petrovskaya said.

News reports showing Putin tend to depict him as a busy man overseeing a great deal of work, while Medvedev is given a "representative role," Petrovskaya said. "Medvedev is cutting ribbons and doing things of little importance," she said.

In a typical broadcast, Channel One's 6 p.m. news on Friday showed Medvedev holding largely photo-op meetings with heads of state at an informal CIS summit in St. Petersburg. Putin was shown directing Russian efforts to provide earthquake relief to China at a meeting with Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu. Medvedev got about six minutes of airtime, while Putin got three.

On May 29, Channel One led its 9 p.m. news with a report about Putin addressing a general assembly of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the seventh news item showed Putin arriving in France for a working visit. Sandwiched between the two segments were two reports about Medvedev's routine activities -- a telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and a meeting with Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov. Putin received 14 minutes, 1 second of coverage, while Medvedev got 6 minutes, 46 seconds, according to Medialogia data.

Ria-novosti / AP
Dmitry Medvedev meeting Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.
That same evening, Rossia television led with the Medvedev meeting and phone conversation, while its third and fourth news items featured Putin's address and Paris trip. Medvedev got 7 minutes, 34 seconds; Putin got 3 minutes, 44 seconds.

On May 16, Channel One gave Medvedev 7 minutes, 29 seconds of airtime, mainly of him congratulating Zenit football players on their UEFA Cup victory and the Russian hockey team for winning the world championship. The same program gave Putin 4 minutes, 40 seconds as he conducted the affairs of state. Rossia that evening gave Medvedev 3 minutes, 58 seconds; Putin -- 4 minutes, 23 seconds.

Before Putin moved to the White House, prime ministers received much less coverage in news programs usually dominated by what the president -- Putin -- was doing. Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov sometimes disappeared for days from television.

"The mystic power of the Russian throne still belongs to Putin," said Sergei Dorenko, a radio show host with Ekho Moskvy and former anchor on ORT, the predecessor to Channel One. "Russians still believe that Putin is their tsar. It doesn't matter what is his position is."

Dorenko, a fierce critic of Putin, said he believed that Putin gets prominent television coverage because journalists are afraid of him.

"Television people don't know yet who is going to beat them harder. ... They think that Putin is more dangerous. This is why they are covering him this way," he said.

During Putin's eight years in the Kremlin, Russia has seen a rollback of media freedom. Television was cleared of opposition voices, the channels, once bristling with criticism of the government and one another, have became a tool in the hands of the Kremlin, media freedom groups say. Before Putin took power in 2000, opposition voices were given space in the three dominant television channels, particularly on the then-privately owned NTV.

Television these days is a reflection of national uncertainty about how the Putin and Medvedev tandem is going to work and whether the power will be in the Kremlin, like under Putin, or move with Putin to the White House, said Mark Urnov, a political scientist at Moscow's Higher School of Economics.

"Television channels have to behave carefully in case one of the options wins and be loyal to who won," Urnov said.

"We are now in a transitional period, and things are unstable. We will have only one leader making decisions sooner or later, but now we have both of them," Urnov said.

Alexei Mukhin, a political analyst at the Center for Political Information, said Medvedev needed to "show his presidential qualities" and that only then he would start to dominate both television news and the country's political life.

"He needs time and then everyone will forget about Putin and look at him as the only president," he said.