Vladimir Putin

Leading the way with a new image

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 April, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 April, 1999, 12:00am

In this information age, no world leader can afford to ignore the power of television. At 68, Russian President Boris Yeltsin is no exception.

Hours before Nato mounted its air strikes against Yugoslavia, the President went on air to warn his American counterpart to think twice before leaping into action.

After the first bombs were dropped, Mr Yeltsin was seen on television again denouncing the 'aggression' as a gross mistake by United States President Bill Clinton.

Despite the demise of the USSR, Russia has remained the second-most formidable military force in the world. The way its leadership reacts to the Kosovo crisis is covered prominently by the news agencies.

However, the Russian media are interested in more than just the speeches of their President. Last weekend, the Moscow Times carried a feature article on Mr Yeltsin's latest TV image.

The paper noted that the President was for the first time wearing glasses.

'Since that fateful night,' it reported, 'Yeltsin has consistently - and self-consciously - worn the same squarish, gold-rimmed spectacles in every public appearance.' The Interfax has also harped on the same subject.

The Russian chief's move has been interpreted as a calculated attempt to transform his image from that of a rebellious fighter to a wiser grandfatherly figure - more befitting that of a thoughtful and responsible statesman seeking to lead the world away from the brink of World War III.

After taking over the helm from Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr Yeltsin has left an impression of being alcoholic, precarious and impulsive.

Mindful of the shady side of their boss' character, Mr Yeltsin's image-makers toyed with the idea of putting the President in spectacles during his 1996 re-election campaign. He, however, preferred a more youthful look and dropped the idea, even though his spectacles and glasses case were often seen close at hand in footage of his office or convalescence ward.

According to the Moscow Times the new-look President has aroused divergent reactions from the Russian people.

Some find his eye wear devoid of individuality - the thin glasses are no different from those worn by millions of ordinary middle-class, white-collar workers around the world. Others perceive the square glasses on Mr Yeltsin's round face as looking stylish and intellectual.

Moscow has assumed an even more important role in the Yugoslav conflict now that its reconnaissance vessels are on their way to the flashpoint.

The fact that Russian media have diverted considerable column centimetres to whether a four-eyed Yeltsin looks better may appear to be too trivial at such a tumultuous moment in a major international confrontation.

Yet, like it or not, appearance often comes before substance when even wars are reduced to soundbites and footage clipped by the second.

In fact, our Chief Executive could learn a lesson or two from the President's latest public relations offensive.

Seven years younger than Mr Yeltsin, Tung Chee-hwa has often been described as being old and weary in front of the press cameras.

There has been no shortage of advice for the SAR head. In an interview with the new Information Co-ordinator Stephen Lam Sui-lung, for instance, RTHK host Luke Tsang was eager to convince Mr Lam's boss to replace his lacklustre reddish ties with livelier colours.

Since then, the Chief Executive's Office must have been flooded with similar pieces of free advice. Mr Tung does not seem to have taken any of them seriously.

But it would do him no harm to take a closer look at ways to project a more energetic image.