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Putin in the public glare

Vladimir PutinOn Thursday Vladimir Putin is set to bestride the airwaves like a colossus, delivering his annual Q&A session live on TV and radio and addressing the nation directly for up to four hours.

The event is one of the most talked-about in Russian politics, bringing the highest corridors of power into direct contact with at least a handful of ordinary citizens.

And every year brings its tales of official largesse and personal concessions won by lucky petitioners.

But for a man who has insisted he does not like the idea of a 'personality cult', Putin's prime-time performance is the kind of star turn which is destined to keep his position as a kind of political phenomenon, many say.

Making sure they remember

"The first person [in Russia] is Putin, not Medvedev. And of course he does something like this every year so that no-one forgets it. Otherwise the Russian elite and officials might get the impression that Medvedev has become leader," Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank, told The Moscow News.

"A KGB serviceman is given a tongue to help him conceal his real thoughts and he basically lied when he said in an interview, when he told a French TV channel this summer, that any kind of personality cult is unacceptable," he said by telephone.

"As a modern man of course he doesn't support the archaic methods of Stalin or Nero, but he does support the modern methods of establishing a personality cult, and he does use them in practice," he added.

Media savvy

Media stunts like quenching forest fires from an airplane and donning shades to ride with bikers brings the prime minister into the media's focus, whether Putin would wish the focus to then linger on him or not.

"I don't see a personality cult here at all," Peter Lavelle, political commentator at Russia Today, told The Moscow News. "I see a prominent political figure demonstrating to the electorate that he is in charge and that he is doing his job."

Putin is shrewd at exploiting the power of the media and combines political grandstanding with more image conscious messages, says Katinka Barysch, deputy director of the Centre for European Reform in London.

"You can either give a speech or strip your shirt off and stand in a river, he does both," she said.

"He strikes me very much as the second leader of the media age, because Gorbachev was very media savvy as well. He also realised that images speak more than a thousand words," says Barysch.

Forming a pattern

The regular feature of a man who is not head of state, broadcasting simultaneously on four different channels and receiving such acute scrutiny is not something that has many analogues elsewhere.

In most other countries it is usually the president or monarch who tends to be invited to deliver a view on the state of the nation.

But Russia's democratic framework is still quite plastic and new traditions are developing.

"Russia's democracy is young and building potential institutions is still in process and if the prime minister is going to play such a prominent role when it comes to policy then so be it. It's not unusual, it's just different," said Lavelle.

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