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The president's Potemkin presser

Dmitry Medvedev
James Brooke is the Moscow bureau chief for Voice of America. To see all "Russia Watch" posts, go to voanews.com

The empty box said it all.

Each reporter was issued a neat white plastic box, complete with notepad, pen and computer memory stick. Each item was embossed: "Press Conference of the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev."

But unlike most press kits, there was no press release, no biography of the president and no glossy photos of the great man.

Indeed, what was billed as the first press conference of President Medvedev turned out to be like what many here think of his 1,000 day presidency ­ all talk and no substance.

In Russian terms, it was the Potemkin press conference.

The form was right: the live nationwide television broadcast, the hall packed to the rafters with 800 reporters, the wall of television cameras, and the explosion of camera flashes every time the president took a sip of tea. The president luxuriated in picking and choosing among dozens of hands and notebooks waving in the air, as reporters essentially implored, "pick me, pick me".

Admittedly, the quality of questions from the reporters was generally low: How can I find a parking space in Moscow? Why do we have to get our cars inspected every year? Where do you get your designer jeans? And, from a reporter flown in from the Arctic, will there be federal help this year for reindeer herders?

Amid the chaff, some substantive questions were asked. The fourth questioner finally asked the question that most Russians presumably want answered: With an election in 10 months, will you run for re-election as president?

The president good-naturedly chided the press for waiting so long to pop the big one.

Reporters held their breath.

Eight-hundred souvenir pens poised above 800 souvenir notebooks.

Then the answer came.

"A press conference of this kind is not the right occasion for such an announcement," the 45-year-old leader of the largest nation in the world told the press he had summoned to the day-long event. "I think decisions of this kind need to be taken and announced in a somewhat different format. ... If I make such a decision, I will certainly announce it."


Are we here, assembled in a faraway Moscow suburb, as bit players, as window dressing, for a pretend press conference?

The morning-after press reviews were scathing.

"Mr. President, what was that all about?" Alexander Minkin wrote in the mass-circulation Moskovsky Komsomolets. He called the president "a Kremlin dreamer".

Vedomosti, the business daily, published a front-page story saying: "Dmitry Medvedev's first major news conference turned out to be strange: he neither summed up the results nor shared his plans for the future."

Lilia Shevtsova, a Kremlinologist for the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on the site of Echo Moskvy radio: "All of that looked not merely helpless. In front of the entire country Medvedev was committing political hara-kiri. Why did he have to take the stage if he has got nothing to say? Endless gabbing about modernisation without the ambition or readiness to do anything undermines any idea of change."

Indeed, after three years of talk, many here feel President Medvedev has little to show in the way of action. Lacking action on his resume, he has lost credibility.

At the Wednesday press conference, the president criticised the United States and NATO for proceeding with building a European missile defence system without including Russia. Such a path, he said, could force Russia into a new arms race, forcing it to increase its nuclear strike capability, and creating "a new Cold War".

The following morning, New York Times correspondent Ellen Barry's account of the Medvedev press conference did not mention the Cold War threat.

When a Russian president threatens an arms race with Washington, and a New York Times reporter does not bother to mention it, you can see that the president has a credibility problem. (Barry won a Pulitzer Prize last month for her Russia coverage, so her credibility is hard to dispute.)

During the marathon two hours, 15 minutes press conference, the president's political mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, cast a palpable shadow over the hall. Although both men are equal in the polls, everyone knows who wears the pants in Russia's ruling tandem.

And some of those pants are forest green camouflage. During the Medvedev event, several reporters were spied scanning the online version of a new interview with Putin in Outdoor Life magazine. Although there are no new bare-chested fishing shots, there are new action pictures of Putin with an Amur tiger, harpooning a whale and clambering over rocks.

The questions by reporter Gayne Young were not much better than some of the softball pitches lobbed to President Medvedev on Wednesday.

Outdoor Life: "Because of your work in conservation and given the incredible adventures you have participated in, you are probably the coolest man in politics. Please do not be modest: Are you the coolest man in politics?"

Vladimir Putin: "I do not think I am ready to wear the laurel of "the coolest man in politics," and actually I do not find anything out of the ordinary in my work in conservation or my active lifestyle."

Desperate for political meat to chew on, I went back today to my presidential press conference kit box.

VOA Moscow producer Diana Markosian had warned me I was too old school. No one hands out reproducible glossies anymore.

"It's all on that memory stick," affirmed Diana, who celebrated her twenty-something birthday on Tuesday.

Chastened, I hurried to my laptop and shoved in my presidential press conference souvenir memory stick.

The computer file flashed on the screen. I contentedly clicked on contents.

The message read: "This Folder is Empty."

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