Putin deploys new weapon -- his judo master

He has been accused of bullying the neighbours, turning off Europe’s gas supply and—as one outraged diplomat appalled by Russia’s heavy-handed treatment of the British Council put it—“punching a librarian”.

President Vladimir Putin has also received a regular battering from the foreign media over Russia’s human rights record, not to mention last month’s allegedly rigged parliamentary election.

But now Putin, apparently fed up with Russia’s enduringly poor image abroad, has decided to do something about the bad publicity: he has sent for his old judo master.

Putin has asked his long-time friend and judo guru Vasily Shestakov to head the National Information Centre—a new press and information centre in Moscow.

Shestakov is currently an MP in the state Duma with the pro-Kremlin A Just Russia party. He once wrote a book with Putin entitled Judo, History, Theory and Practice, and apparently taught the future president some of his best throws.

Shestakov was on Tuesday unavailable for comment. “He’s out and I’m not going to bother him,” his secretary said.
But judging from a photo in Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper showing Shestakov’s formidable neck, he is not someone to mess with.

The centre opens next month, in time for Russia’s presidential election on March 2. It will host events for Russian and foreign journalists and also put them in touch with Kremlin officials, a state council spokesperson, Ivan Makushok, told the agency Interfax.

The centre will be housed in a gigantic complex a short walk from the Kremlin. It will be next door to the current office of the presidential administration. Unlike in most government buildings, journalists will be encouraged to hang out there and use the internet café.

The initiative suggests that Putin, who is likely to become Russia’s next prime minister when he steps down as President in May, is not totally indifferent to what the world thinks of him, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary.

Delinquency

It also follows a tumultuous year for Russia. The president has clashed bitterly with the West over a series of international issues. These have included Kosovo, Iran’s nuclear programme, and the US administration’s plans to put its missile defence system in central Europe.

The centre will open its doors at a time when Russia’s relations with Britain are at rock bottom. Last week Russia forcibly closed the British Council’s two regional offices, and on Monday workmen removed the neon “British Council” sign from the St Petersburg branch.

A foreign policy expert said he believed the Kremlin was still basically impervious to criticism from the West. “My deep conviction is that Russia hasn’t cared about its international image for a long time,” Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs, said on Tuesday. “Two years ago it did. Now it doesn’t. It believes that the international environment is hostile and that it is impossible to change the negative attitude in the West and the Western press.”

According to Kommersant newspaper, Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of Chelsea football club, is one of several businessman backers of the new press and information centre, but a spokesperson for Abramovich declined to comment.

Russia’s media is almost entirely controlled by the Kremlin. Critics are blacklisted from state TV. Officials, however, said they had invited Alexei Venediktov, the head of the radio station Ekho Moskvy—one of the last sources of independent news in Russia—to join the centre’s supervisory board.

Putin, meanwhile, has credited judo with rescuing him from a life of delinquency, when he was growing up in the grimy backstreets of Soviet-era Leningrad, Russia’s second city, now St Petersburg.

Last year Shestakov said that he had been wrongly described as Putin’s judo teacher. They merely trained together, he said. “I can’t physically have been his trainer, because I’m younger than him. We train together, and practise together, but I’ve never been his teacher,” he told the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestiya. - Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008

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