The remaking of a president Imagemaker: Look behind President Boris N. Yeltsin's warm and fuzzy, more-human image and you will find his press secretary, Sergei Yastrzhembsky.

November 22, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Boris N. Yeltsin's first post-surgery public appearance this week amounted to a few small steps for the president and a giant leap for Kremlin imagemakers.

Kremlin tradition demanded a very serious handshake-and-a-bouquet session between a suited president and his prime minister.

The president's new image aides needed something different -- human, warm and friendly.

So what television viewers and newspaper readers got were scenes of a healthy-looking, slimmed-down president and his peaches-and-cream granddaughter, Masha, strolling arm in arm through a hospital garden. While Yeltsin said he was "in a fighting mood," his granddaughter sweetly adjusted his scarf against the November chill.

The political spin was stunning.

The man behind all this is presidential press secretary Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who was acting quite giddy yesterday, his usually serious demeanor cracked by a broad smile at what he judged a big score for the Kremlin's "new openness."

"There's no comparison," he said, between the coldness of tradition and the sympathetic image that went out Wednesday night on all three national television networks in Yeltsin's biggest appearance since he underwent heart surgery Nov. 5.

Indeed, for Americans fresh off a presidential campaign season, the decision would have seemed a "no-brainer": Go for the heart.

But it is not so simple here, where public and governmental expectations are sometimes still frozen in time, said Yastrzhembsky, whose three-month tenure has been consumed with a public relations mop-up of the lies about Yeltsin's health told by the president's former administration.

Valentin Petrov registered just the kind of public response the Kremlin had hoped for.

"I was really surprised to see [Yeltsin] in the family circle on his first appearance after the operation. I expected he'd be alone, giving an official speech, maybe near his hospital bed," said the 40-year-old physics professor. "It was very unusual. But I think we should get accustomed to this way."

'New openness'

Journalists and political analysts who cover the Kremlin are willing to grant the new team this: They've got a successful public relations campaign going. But, they say, whether it is genuine openness or just image-making is another question.

Most point to Yeltsin's new chief of staff, the controversial liberal reformer Anatoly B. Chubais, as the mastermind behind the so-called "new openness." Chubais is wildly unpopular for his part in painful market reforms, so there is much public suspicion of any new direction in his management of the Kremlin.

But many observers agree that Yastrzhembsky, as the front man for the Yeltsin administration, has created a much looser atmosphere and more credible record than his predecessors. Yeltsin's former press secretary, Sergei Medvedev, never lived down the fact that he tried to pass off an old photo of a healthy Yeltsin as one taken just after his first heart attack last year.

Influencing public opinion instead of dictating it is still a new concept here. But Chubais specifically drafted Yastrzhembsky (pronounced Yazz-trem-ski), who was known as a formidable and independent thinker, to help the new concept work for Yeltsin.

In an interview in his large Kremlin office yesterday, the press secretary offered a glimpse into the thinking behind the "new openness." As the Russian ambassador to Slovakia for the past three years, Yastrzhembsky said he watched the press policy of the Kremlin and "wasn't satisfied at all as a client -- as a citizen who needs information."

When he was "suddenly drafted" for the job, he said, his main condition for taking it was that the press office be allowed to formulate a clear and reliable line of information -- both coming into his office from the president and going out of it to the public.

Though he took pains not to point fingers at his predecessors, he said that another condition for taking the job was that he would have direct access to the president because "you can make mistakes" if Yeltsin meets with two ministers and you get information from only one. "I work for Mr. Yeltsin; I need his view of the meeting," he said.

Yastrzhembsky said that he has met often with Yeltsin in the three months he has been press secretary, that the president accepts his phone calls and has often responded immediately by dictated letter to his queries.

It wasn't easy at first.

Former national security chief, Alexander I. Lebed, who was fired in October, was "not a team player," Yastrzhembsky said.

But the toughest immediate task he faced with Chubais in August was convincing Yeltsin to publicly acknowledge his illness.

The historic day that the president went before the nation to say that he had a bad heart and would undergo bypass surgery, he said, was when his job as press secretary really began.

"September 5 was for us a Rubicon, an absolutely necessary step," Yastrzhembsky said. "Without breaking the historic taboo of the Kremlin we couldn't be open about the operation.

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