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After attending RIA-Novosti’s European and Asian Media Forum last week, I understood the answer to the joke about President Dmitry Medvedev — “Why does Medvedev need a video blog when he has Channel One?”

After Medvedev finished addressing the journalists, my first thoughts were: “He’s not at all like he appears on television. He is precise in his thinking, responds well to the audience and is affable but not weak.”

Then I asked myself, “But what exactly did he say?” The funny thing about it was, I could not remember a single word Medvedev had spoken, even though I had been taking notes the whole time.

The reason for my forgetfulness was not a lack of substance in Medvedev’s speech but my shock at the large contrast between the televised image of the president and his actual conduct in person.

Over the past few months, Medvedev is everywhere on television. But he almost always seems to be wearing a dour expression, which appears out of place with his boyish appearance.

In personal interviews with television journalists, Medvedev looks as if he wants to lose the image contest. And his calls for modernization are invariably met with approving nods and expressions of support from the colorless United Russia functionaries who bore television viewers to tears. Perhaps Vladimir Putin chose Medvedev as his successor specifically so that his own charisma would shine all the brighter against such a dull and uninspiring backdrop.

But after I saw Medvedev speak in person, I had more respect for Putin. His choice of a successor was not motivated by political intrigue but by a desire to pursue a line of development with which I happen to sympathize.

This is why I do not believe the conspiratorial explanation that television portrays the president in such a lackluster fashion in order to play up Putin’s strengths. It is more likely that the directors of the country’s major television stations are too caught up in the task of earning money by staging elaborate productions to risk departing from the time-tested formula of presenting the president in an austere, aloof manner.

What’s the fallout of having a president with a stiff, Brezhnev-like television image? On the same day Medvedev spoke at the journalism forum, Nezavisimaya Gazeta ran an article titled “Russians Unconvinced by Call for Modernization.” It reported the results of a survey showing that although everybody in Russia agrees with the need for modernization, only 5 percent of those questioned believed that the state was capable of driving this innovation. That degree of skepticism is clearly linked to the fact that the country lacks strong presidential leadership.

It would be a big mistake to return to the so-called “independent television” of the 1990s in which television networks was lethal ammunition for oligarchs battling one another for influence. It goes without saying that even the most sophisticated television programming cannot maintain an image of strong presidential leadership if the president himself does not take actions to back it up.

The risks are obvious. Russia cannot modernize unless television coverage of Medvedev is modernized. Otherwise, the people will never accept Medvedev as a real president. In the best-case scenario, he will maintain the image of a popular blogger.

Alexei Pankin is editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.

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