Presidential Hopeful Repackaged For Election Season

By Anna Smolchenko

St Petersburg Times
Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Ivanov’s diplomatic ID card at the Finnish Foreign Ministry. He served
at the Soviet Embassy in Helsinki from 1984 to 1990.

KEMEROVO – They must be Russia’s busiest men these days.

Acting First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov has been meeting
workers, inspecting mines and opening sports complexes across the
country. And for every move he makes in front of state television
cameras, acting First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev seems to
be vying for similar coverage with a jam-packed schedule of his own.

The difference between the two, both seen as leading presidential
candidates, is that only one is being groomed to succeed President
Vladimir Putin, political commentators said.

That person is Ivanov.

"The play has been written, and those who wrote it know the script,"
said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who tracks Kremlin politics at the Russian
Academy of Sciences. "Ivanov is the No. 2 person in the country."

The sudden resignation of the government and nomination of a
little-known technocrat as prime minister Wednesday appeared to
support the notion that it is too early for Putin to announce his
favored successor. While many in the government were caught off guard
by the nomination, Ivanov wasn’t.

"He absolutely didn’t look like a person who felt disappointed,"
said Ariel Cohen, an analyst with the Washington-based Heritage
Foundation who attended a meeting of foreign experts with Ivanov
hours after news of the shake-up broke.

In recent months, public opinion polls consistently have named
Ivanov as the favorite to succeed Putin in the March presidential
election. He’s even considered the top bet by major foreign bookmakers
such as Britain’s Unibet.

People in Ivanov’s inner circle are keeping a close watch on his image,
right down to his popularity among bookmakers. "This causes nothing
but a smile," an Ivanov aide said of the betting.

Ivanov’s camp has good reason to smile. In a matter of months, he
has made the difficult transition from a tough-talking, sour-faced
defense minister to a silver-tongued, meticulously dressed darling
of the electorate.

Buffing Ivanov’s Image

The transformation got off to a bad start, and at least one Russian
reporter learned the hard way that covering Ivanov can be a risky
business. The reporter’s mistake was that she reported Ivanov’s
comments about Private Andrei Sychyov, whose legs and genitals were
amputated following a hazing in January 2006. Asked about the incident
during a Jan. 26 trip to Armenia, Ivanov, then defense minister,
dismissed it as "nothing very serious."

"Otherwise, I would have surely known about it," he said in comments
carried by RIA-Novosti, the only news agency that reported the

The quote came at the worst possible time. Medvedev, who had been
made first deputy prime minister just two months before, was basking
in the media spotlight with promises to allocate money to schools and
hospitals as part of his portfolio of overseeing the four national
projects. Ivanov, already competing for media time with Medvedev,
came across to the public as a callous, heartless tyrant.

"Everybody was outraged. Ivanov was ostensibly outraged," said the
RIA-Novosti reporter, who had covered Ivanov for two years. "For me,
of course, it was my last trip."

The reporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the
sensitivity of the issue, said she had called in the quote because it
"seemed interesting to me."

Following her expulsion from Ivanov’s closely knit pool of journalists,
RIA-Novosti sent her on a three-month stint abroad before bringing
her back to Moscow to cover a different beat.

More important, the incident appears to have sped up a looming shuffle
in the Ivanov camp. Sergei Rybakov, who had handled media coverage
for Ivanov, was moved to an analytical position, and officials from
the presidential administration took over his duties.

Ivanov’s handlers are striving to make sure the public sees Ivanov
in the best possible light. They keep a close eye on his media
engagements, his adherence to protocol and his interactions with
ordinary people.

Those who know him say they have noticed improvements – right down
to his blond hair.

"When he was at the Defense Ministry, he had a horrible haircut,"
the RIA-Novosti reporter said.

"Today it’s an ideal coiffure."

On the Campaign Trail?

Like Putin, Ivanov also has grown media savvy. On a visit to an open
pit mine in the Kemerovo region last month, Ivanov whipped off his
jacket and climbed into a giant, 130-ton BelAZ truck. He presented
its driver with a watch, started the engine and let it idle for a
few minutes. Television reporters asked him afterward whether he had
enjoyed the experience.

"The driver has the same name as me, Sergei, and said he has driven
it for 10 years and likes it," Ivanov replied with a smile.

A day earlier, Ivanov made a beeline for a waiting camera crew
and reporters after his Il-62 jet touched down at the Kemerovo
city airport. En route, he asked a spokesman for the regional
administration, "Can I go up [to them]?" Apparently receiving an
affirmative signal, Ivanov turned on the charm.

Pyotr Pudov / Itar-Tass

Ivanov climbing down from a truck on a visit to the Kemorovo region
last month.

Ivanov’s aide denied that posing for cameras and frequent trips across
the country had anything to do with the presidential election. "These
are routine working trips. If it were the campaign trail, it would
have a different format," said the aide, who asked for anonymity to
speak candidly about the inner workings of Ivanov’s staff. He said
he joined the team a couple months before Ivanov’s promotion from
the Defense Ministry to first deputy prime minister in February.

He declined to disclose his previous position.

A Fake Contest

The notion that Medvedev is competing against Ivanov is exactly what
the Kremlin wants people to believe, said Anna Kachkayeva, a media
analyst with U.S.

Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "This is a sham
competition," she said.

In the absence of free and democratic elections, the semblance of a
contest between the two top officials is helping Putin keep the whole
country in suspense and making it more difficult for various Kremlin
clans to rally around a single candidate, she said.

"Somebody has devised an ingenious plan," she said, adding that
television officials were trying to give Medvedev and Ivanov roughly
equal airtime.

Or so it would seem.

Media monitoring company Medialogia says Ivanov is getting more
airtime on national television, which is all state controlled. The
company found that from November to August, Ivanov received 2,178
mentions on television, while Medvedev got just 1,621.

Television is expected to play a deciding factor in who will be elected
president, perhaps explaining why Medvedev trails Ivanov in the opinion
polls. Some people vote with their hearts, but Russians "have grown
another body organ, and it is called television," said Boris Dubov, a
senior researcher at the Levada Center, an independent polling agency.

Kryshtanovskaya, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said the Kremlin
was further increasing the suspense between Ivanov and Medvedev by
throwing other senior officials into the electoral ring, including
acting Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin, Russian Railways chief
Vladimir Yakunin and Rosoboronexport head Sergei Chemezov, and now
prime minister designate Viktor Zubkov. Most of the officials have
been getting prominent coverage on television.

Although some of the officials have ambitions of their own, they appear
to know they have no chance of winning the presidency, Kryshtanovskaya
said. "It seems to me that it was made known in advance that Ivanov
would win," she said.

She described Ivanov as a member of a kind of Politburo that runs
the country; the other members are Putin, Federal Security Service
director Nikolai Patrushev, Kremlin deputy chief of staff Igor Sechin
and Kremlin adviser Viktor Ivanov.

"The Politburo is betting on itself" in the election, she said,
comparing the situation within the group to the "mad tea party"
from Lewis Carroll’s "Alice in Wonderland."

"They all sit at one table and will move one place over to clean cups,"
she said.

Ivanov’s aides denied repeated requests for an interview with Ivanov,
citing his tight schedule.

Friends Speak Warmly

People who have known Ivanov for years speak about him warmly, if
somewhat guardedly. Galina Nerush, a museum curator at St. Petersburg
School No. 24, where Ivanov studied, said he liked jazz and that
when he started smoking, his mother and a teacher, Valentina Klifus,
tried to get him to quit. Ivanov is said to be a heavy smoker now,
although he is rarely seen smoking in public.

In a brief phone conversation, Klifus said she had taught Ivanov from
the fourth to 10th grades and helped raise him. His father died when
he was young.

Klifus, now in her mid-80s, praised Ivanov, saying, "I wish everybody
was like him."

She declined to talk further, saying she was not feeling well.

Ivanov’s fortunes have closely mirrored Putin’s over the
years. President Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin as FSB director in
July 1998, and Ivanov became his deputy a month later. Three months
after Yeltsin promoted Putin to prime minister in August 1999, he
named Ivanov as the head of the Security Council.

During his career in the KGB, Ivanov served three lengthy tours in
Europe and Africa. His longest stay was in Finland, where he worked
from 1984 to 1990 as third and later second secretary of the Soviet
Embassy in Helsinki, Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat newspaper reported
April 1, citing documents issued in Ivanov’s name from the archives
of the Finnish Foreign Ministry’s protocol department. The newspaper
published a photo of the ministry’s card on Ivanov.

Ivanov cut a modern, European figure and stood out from the rest of
his colleagues, said Peter Stenlund, who met regularly with Ivanov
as secretary of the Swedish People’s Party in the 1980s. The party is
one of Finland’s oldest and represents the country’s Swedish-speaking
minority. Ivanov speaks fluent English and some Swedish.

Stenlund, now Finland’s ambassador to Norway, declined to comment on
Ivanov’s current activities.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Ivanov’s chances of being
elected were high because he oversaw a range of important issues in
the government. But he said Ivanov was not a sure bet and ordinary
Russians would have the final say at the ballot box.

While Ivanov seems to be walking and talking like a future president
these days, whether he will end up in the Kremlin is anybody’s guess
for now, said Kachkayeva, of Radio Liberty.

"Everything has been decided," she said. "Or nothing has been
decided yet."