Interview gives Putin exposure in the U.S.

Radio: Tonight's talk with the Russian president on NPR is another sign of his willingness to cooperate with the West.

November 15, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

"Next, from Toledo, we have a call from Phyllis. Go ahead, Phyllis, you're on with the president of Russia ..."

Tonight at 7:30, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin will entertain the questions of National Public Radio anchor Robert Siegel, and then take e-mails and calls from the rest of America.

The NPR interview and ensuing discussion will be carried on regional affiliates WJHU (88.1 FM) and WAMU (88.5 FM).

Under Soviet regimes, said Kevin Klose, NPR's president, "this would have been impossible to imagine. The leadership was distanced by a virtual wall between itself and any spontaneous contact with foreigners, especially Westerners."

Since the terrorist attacks, Putin appears to have thrown in his lot with the West. Over the past two months, Russian and U.S. leaders have worked together on countering terrorism in central Asia. Klose also remarked on the symbolism of Putin's passing reference this week to "the Second World War," instead of calling that global conflict by its Russian name, "The Great Patriotic War."

Yet Putin, a former KGB agent, has until now largely aped the practice of his Russian and Soviet predecessors of keeping his people and the press at a rigid distance. Several major Russian media outlets have complained of government crackdowns after critical coverage.

"Mr. Putin is not very accessible in general. There's very much a palace guard mentality around him," said Russia scholar Dimitri K. Simes of the Nixon Center. "There is no access for the Russian press. But he's a very pragmatic politician, and he does understand the power of the media in America."

As he came to the United States this month, Putin decided to ensure greater exposure. On Nov. 5, he granted his first interview with an American media outlet since the attacks when he appeared with ABC's Barbara Walters. Now, he's about to participate in the first known Q&A session with the U.S. public.

For Klose, a past president for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post, arranging the session was a labor of love. In speaking with press aides to the Russian president, Klose noted that he has five Russian-American grandchildren. He also stressed that his network and its listeners place an unusual importance on foreign coverage.

Tonight's interview will not be the first time a foreign leader has donned headphones to brace for unscripted questions. On CNN's Larry King Live, for example, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat have all taken calls from viewers.

Just last year, then-President Bill Clinton fielded questions sent via e-mail on Ekho Moskvy, a Russian radio broadcaster. Listeners sought details about Clinton's personal experiences, such as favorite saxophone pieces, first summer jobs and his wife's political future.

For a Russian leader, however, the session has few forerunners. Former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, while in office, thought themselves above such public questioning, Simes said.

"He clearly feels, in Russia, this is not necessary, this is not useful," Simes said of Putin. Here, he said, the foreign leader "feels that he will play by American rules, and that he'll be very good at it."

After the Putin session, NPR's Neal Conan, host of Talk of the Nation, will lead a discussion with listeners and a panel of analysts.

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