By Katya Golubkova and Maria Tsvetkova
MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Russian government summoned energy companies last week to give it advance notice about developments that could influence public opinion in the period up to May next year, when President Vladimir Putin's term ends.
The meeting suggests that Russia's government has enlisted firms to help plan its public relations strategy ahead of the presidential election, due to take place in March 2018 with a second round if needed the following month.
Most Kremlin-watchers expect Putin to seek another term, and polls suggest virtually no danger that he could lose: despite three years of difficult economic times, his approval rating hovers around 85 percent.
But as in past Russian elections where the overall outcome was in little doubt, the authorities are expected to carefully manage the campaign, seeking a strong mandate with high turnout. Putin's last presidential election in 2012 was accompanied by opposition protests, and turnout at parliamentary elections last year hit a record low of 48 percent.
Reuters saw a copy of the invitation sent by the energy ministry to companies and spoke with sources at three of the firms that participated, on condition that they not be identified while discussing the closed-door meeting.
The Feb. 16 meeting was attended by about a dozen companies, comprising all of the major firms in Russia's energy sector, including its two oil and gas giants, Rosneft and Gazprom.
Rosneft declined to comment, while Gazprom did not reply to a Reuters request seeking a comment. Offices of the smaller firms that attended the meeting were closed on Wednesday evening ahead of a two-day national holiday, and could not be reached.
According to the energy ministry invitation, which was signed by Deputy Energy Minister Anton Inyutsyn, the information gathered at the meeting would be used to compile a monthly report for passing on to the presidential administration.
One of the sources said company representatives were asked to reveal what projects they were preparing to bring on line that would bring positive coverage, including such things as new production capacity, buildings, or even nursery schools.
The executives were also asked to reveal what risks they anticipated that could generate negative coverage, such as customers missing payments on energy supply deals or other contracts.
Oil and gas provide Russia's biggest source of state revenue and export income, and energy firms are among the most powerful companies and biggest employers in the country. Reuters has not found evidence that similar instructions were sent to companies in other sectors.
The invitation to the meeting did not explicitly mention the presidential election. Firms were asked to provide a briefing about "the most significant events in the activities of your company which in the period to May 2018 can have a positive or negative influence on the socio-political and socio-economic situation in the Russian Federation".
The energy ministry said in a statement emailed to Reuters that such meetings were part of its ongoing dialogue with firms in that sector aimed at promoting openness and making the ministry's work more effective.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov referred questions about the meeting to the ministry.
"From our side we are not conducting any such activity," Peskov said of the presidential administration. "At the moment we are not working on elections because it’s a little bit early. We have not started preparations."
A Kremlin official, who did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said that the presidential administration routinely requests reports from ministries and this was one such case.
The companies were asked to fill out forms listing events that could influence public opinion: when they were expected, where, what part of the population they would effect, and who in the company was responsible for overseeing the event.
Reuters reviewed a blank copy of the forms. One box asked for details of "opportunities" which "could lead to positive consequences", and another sought details of "risks" which "could lead to negative consequences."
Andrei Kolyadin, a former Kremlin official who was responsible for regional politics, said the energy ministry's initiative matched projects he was involved in to prepare for past elections.
"The presidential administration and various agencies responsible for elections try to gather together in one place all the problem issues before the elections," he told Reuters in an interview.
The aim is to identify the problem and the possible consequences, and where necessary to step in at an early stage, "and not when people have already risen up."
(Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Peter Graff)