Putin Orders Image Makeover Under New Kremlin Spin Doctor

MOSCOW, March 20 (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled a desire to revamp his image Monday by launching a major rethink of the Kremlin spin machine with his slick spokesman on the Chechen war as its new supremo.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, 47, held the same post of chief presidential spokesman for two years under Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin but was dismissed in September 1998 for backing a key Kremlin critic.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky

Yastrzhembsky would head a new Kremlin information department, an official statement said, but analysts predicted the ambitious former diplomat would have a wide-ranging brief, with his duties including that of media troubleshooter.

"The decision has been taken to create this department to perfect information on the activities of the president of the Russian Federation," said a decree signed by Putin.

The Russian leader has been criticized in the domestic and international media for the Kremlin's often sluggish responses to disasters such as the Kursk submarine tragedy and last week's plane hijacking, both of which occurred while Putin was on holiday.

Top presidential advisor Gleb Pavlovsky said the Kremlin's media revamp was an organizational matter, not a political one, adding that the new department would help focus the government's message.

"Up to now, the absence of coordination (between government, ministers and the president) has produced a feeling of incoherence, such as was the case with the Paris Club debt issue, when various officials made contradictory statements," Pavlovsky said.

"Putin clearly sees the need to polish his image, particularly abroad," Moscow analyst Yevgeny Volk told AFP.

Vladimir Putin

"The people surrounding Putin since his election (a year ago) have not exactly shined in the sphere of public relations. The president has had to handle all the delicate subjects -- the Kursk, Chechnya -- on his own," he added.

But he warned that Yastrzhembsky was an ambitious official, who had regarded his key role spinning Kremlin policy in Chechnya as too narrow a brief.

Yastrzhembsky left the Yeltsin administration under a cloud after declaring his support for Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, then a front-runner in the race to succeed the unpopular lame-duck president.

He worked as Luzhkov's spokesman right up to the December 1999 legislative elections when pro-Putin candidates routed the mayor's party set up with former foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov as a launch pad to the presidency.

Yastrzhembsky took up his post as the Kremlin's Chechen spokesman on January 12, 2000, less than two weeks after Yeltsin's surprise New Year's Eve resignation in favor of Putin.

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