In a country with such a long history of strong leaders, there was little surprise with last week's announcement that Vladimir Putin would be seeking a further term as Russia's President.
Putin - said by some to be less popular with the Russian people than a few years ago - is set to be elected president without much opposition. Subsequently Putin - as a result of constitutional changes brought in by President Medvedev - could be dominating the Russian political scene for the next 12 years. Putin will be 71 then and will be continuing a long tradition of being in the Kremlin for life, a tradition that stretches back 450 years to the reign of Ivan the Terrible, Russia's first Czar. Critics suggest Medvedev is little more than a puppet to Putin's puppet master, but how can the current president hope to cope with Putin's undoubted political PR brilliance?
A man who learned the art of diplomacy while in the KGB looks to have learnt the dark art of political spin from Peter Mandelson. Let's examine the evidence:
1. Master of the photo opportunity
Politicians have been drawn to great photo-opportunities for as long as there have been cameras to record the event. Bare chested, riding bare back or grappling with any number of wild animals (occasionally to kill them but more recently in the new CSR enlightened Russia to save them) Putin is a modern day Ken to Medvedev's Barbie. Russia’s history of strong, autocratic leaders cries out for a man with a gun in his hand and the sun on his bare back. Putin rarely disappoints his public. When continuity needs to be communicated, then Putin and Medvedev head off on a fishing trip, sat side-by-side with rods in hand, to communicate an ongoing partnership. The fact that Medvedev caught a bigger fish should of course be ignored.
2. Message discipline and a well managed strategic communications grid
The thinking behind the last four years (with Putin in the role of Prime Minister not President) seems clear. If United Russia is going to successfully demonstrate it is the party which understands the hopes and fears of ordinary Russians then it should be Prime Minister Putin making the relevant announcement not President Medvedev. Many seasoned Russia watchers comment the Medvedev presidency has been one of little action and fewer reforms – this is because Putin has been the one doing all the announcing. Similar to the story of Tony not knowing what Gordon had in his Budget, but happening on a daily basis. That is real message discipline.
3. Consistency of message and defining your opponents
Peter Mandelson helped to invent 'New' Labour while Putin is the rock on which United Russia is built. A further similarity between the two political movements is a clever skill of defining their opposition to such an extent that they have nowhere to go. With ‘New’ Labour it was about grabbing the middle ground, with United Russia it is about total dominance. With Putin the approach is: “How dare someone oppose United Russia”. If you are against United Russia then you are surely, it follows, you are also against Mother Russia, so shame on you.
Putin to the Kremlin, again. It’s a PR triumph of undoubted proportions isn’t it?