Russia's Image Doctor Has A New Patient

Controversial Sergei Lisovsky is backing Moscow's mayor

Sergei F. Lisovsky knows how to run a political campaign. In early 1996, Boris N. Yeltsin was badly lagging behind Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov in the polls for Russia's presidential election that summer. Lisovsky, a top advertising executive and concert promoter, persuaded his rock-star pals to boogie with Yeltsin in Russia's rusting heartland, spreading the message "Vote or Lose" to the younger generation. The showmanship went a long way toward clinching the vote. "The plan was controversial, but it worked," Lisovsky boasts.

Now, Russia is gearing up for another dramatic presidential race. This time around, the 39-year-old spin doctor is working for a new candidate--Yeltsin nemesis Yuri M. Luzhkov, the feisty mayor of Moscow. Luzhkov hasn't officially announced his candidacy for the elections in June, 2000, but he is already a leader in the polls. It will be a tough campaign, and media backing will be crucial. For starters, the mayor has asked Lisovsky to turn his Moscow-based media group into a nationwide force.

FIND THE SLOGAN. Perhaps no one is better suited for the job than the colorful Lisovsky. The Moscow-based magazine Expert ranks him as the third most influential media magnate in Russia, behind tycoon Boris Berezovsky and Luzhkov himself. He owns a music-video channel, a popular TV guide, and Russia's biggest advertising agency--holdings now worth a total of $500 million, by his estimates. And he has survived his share of scandals--most recently, he was cleared of alleged tax evasion. To Lisovsky, it's all grist for the mill when it comes to giving advice in Russia's rough-and-tumble political world. "Any problem can be overcome," he says. "It's a matter of building an image and finding a slogan."

To build Luzhkov's national image, Lisovsky's first task will be to shake up TV Center, the station owned by the Moscow City government. He plans to target young adults and expand the affiliates' network so the mayor can be beamed into every Russian home. A lifelong media junkie, Lisovsky started as a disk jockey and record producer in the 1980s. He became a media czar in 1995 after his advertising agency, Premier SV, secured the monopoly to sell time on Russia's biggest channel, ORT. By 1998, Premier controlled 80% of the $1 billion TV sales market. Premier lost its lead this year after Russia's financial crisis.

But Lisovsky's successes have been shadowed by controversies. He was questioned in the investigation of the 1995 murder of Vladislav Listyev, the head of ORT. Listyev was shot to death soon after he announced a plan to root out corruption in ORT ad sales, which were controlled by Lisovsky. Lisovsky has not been charged. He says he is in no way connected to the death. Then, in 1996, Lisovsky and a colleague were arrested leaving the Yeltsin campaign offices carrying boxes with $500,000 in cash. An investigation into possible illegal campaign financing was dropped after Yeltsin won. Lisovsky says he did nothing wrong.

TAX TROUBLE. The most recent incident came in December, 1998, when ski-masked tax police raided Lisovsky's offices and he left Russia. Authorities returned to his home in March and accused him of wire-tapping Russian politicians. In June, Lisovsky returned from a Swiss ski resort with his name cleared and a new job working for Luzhkov. Lisovsky says he paid off $11,000 in tax arrears and that the wire-tapping investigation died for lack of evidence. "Security agencies are used as tools in political games," he says.

Mudslinging will only get worse as the election draws closer. In 1996, voters faced a clear choice: Zyuganov and a return to the Soviet past, or Yeltsin and the hope for a more open, prosperous society. Nearly all of the media unabashedly supported Yeltsin. Now, the press, and the moguls who own it, are divided. To strengthen his chances, Luzhkov may forge a partnership with another popular politician, the former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. But there is also "a good chance a dark horse" could win, Lisovsky says. "Elections are going to be much dirtier," he adds.

In a country jaded by biased media and fed up with corruption, Lisovsky will need plenty of new tricks to make sure this campaign--and his comeback--don't founder.

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