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CIS: A Dirty Trick That Has Proved Exportable

  • Julie Corwin --> Members of Belarus's democratic opposition were bracing for some kind of provocation to take place during their congress in early October. They were, however, taken aback by the form that this action took. A group of young people dressed in colorful clothing carried signs declaring that members of Belarus's sexual minority support democrats, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 3 October. Before cameras from Belarus's national television stations, they expressed their hope that upon coming to power, the opposition would legalize same-sex marriage. The leader of Belarus's registered movement of gays and lesbians said his group had nothing to do with the rally. The "gay" theme was nevertheless the main focus of Belarusian television broadcasts on the congress, according to

It is too early to say what effect this "performance" will have on the rating of the opposition's new candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, but organizing such rallies by previously unknown groups of "gays and lesbians" has a long history in political campaigning in the former Soviet Union. It remains among the main weapons in the arsenal of "black PR," or dirty tricks. And while no polling agency has conducted systematic research into the effectiveness of smearing candidates or politicians by either associating them with gay groups or insinuating that they are gay, it is safe to assume that the techniques has met with some success. Otherwise, the practitioners of "black PR" would avoid it.

Early Practitioners

One early -- and successful -- use of the technique was during a September 1998 by-election for a State Duma seat in Nizhnii Novogorod Oblast. Flamboyant activists were hired to go around the conservative town of Dzerzhinsk carrying posters and signs in favor of Muscovite advertising executive Sergei Lisovskii. According to "Izvestiya" on 27 May 2003, their antics had a "shocking effect" on voters and Lisovskii lost. Would Lisovskii have lost otherwise? Quite possibly, since he had to work against local voters' perceptions that he was an outsider. However, he had built up some goodwill among local voters by providing much-needed textbooks and medicines. At the national level, during the 2000 presidential campaign, groups of youths were reportedly hired to carry signs around Moscow with the message "Gays and Lesbians for Yavlinskii." Andrei Vulf, a former State Duma deputy, told NTV on 27 May 2003 that Yavlinskii's popularity fell after these actions.
During the 2000 presidential campaign in Russia, groups of youths were reportedly hired to carry signs around Moscow with the message "Gays and Lesbians for Yavlinskii." Andrei Vulf, a former State Duma deputy, told NTV on 27 May 2003 that Yavlinskii's popularity fell after these actions.

In the more recent, gubernatorial elections in Kurgan Oblast in 2004, a local legislator and head of the Motherland party branch in neighboring Sverdlovsk, Sergei Kapchuk, was expected to put up strong competition for incumbent Oleg Bogomolov. During the lead-up to the first round, graffiti appeared overnight on Kapchuk campaign materials with the word "Gay," Novyi region reported 9 September 2004. Krapchuk told the agency "all of this is not especially pleasant, and if my ill-wishers succeed, then I will lose the first round of the election!" Kapchuk accused Bogomolov's headquarters of being behind the effort: "Bogomolov became afraid of me as soon as his rating was reached 15 percent and mine 9 percent." Kapchuk was later disqualified on the eve of the first round, so he never had a chance to try to gauge how much the action hurt him.

Quickly Forgotten?

An interesting feature of dirty tricks is that they seem to have a limited shelf life. As soon as voters develop a certain awareness of them and begin to suspect a trick is just that -- a trick -- then the target of the smear might in fact win more public sympathy. During a contentious mayoral race in Nizhnii Novgorod in July 2001, residents were treated to posters around their city with slogans that included "Gays for Andrei" and "Prostitutes for Andrei." (Former mayor and convicted felon Klimentev was the only candidate with the first name Andrei.) That effort appeared to have little effect, according to Maksim Dianov, director of the Institute for Regional Problems, "Izvestiya" reported on 24 March 2003.

According to Dianov, dirty tricks can also sometimes have opposite effects of those intended. For example, five days before a State Duma election, Rostov Oblast candidate Igor Bratishchev was shown being picked up by the police seemingly drunk outside of a restaurant, according to "Izvestiya." He used obscene language and shoved at the policemen; his rating shot up immediately by 12 percent, and he won the election.

At the same time, it is difficult to imagine that Bratishchev's career would have survived similar film footage being shown of him being picked up by policemen outside of a gay nightclub. While it is true that Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii has been filmed inside of a gay nightclub, his reputation and "appeal" is built to a great extent on his clownish defiance of societal norms. Public attitudes toward homosexuality in most countries in the former Soviet space are not as tolerant as those toward drunkenness.

Fighting Back

Recently, one national-level politician in Russia felt strongly enough about being labeled gay that he pursued a criminal case against a campaign consultant for libel. In June, a local court in Saratov sentenced Eduard Abrosimov, a journalist and former adviser to former Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov, to seven months in jail for spreading compromising materials about Ayatskov rival and State Duma Deputy Vyacheslav Volodin (Unified Russia) in the national weekly "Sobesednik." The article, which was written by someone named Andrei Zabelin, suggested that Volodin has an "untraditional" sexual orientation. Local prosecutors also found on Abrosimov's personal computer the text of another article accusing local police investigators of taking bribes. According to an RFE/RL correspondent in Saratov, police also found on one of Abrosimov's computer disks details about the preparation of a PR campaign against Volodin. One of the proposed actions was organizing a scandal in a gay club in Europe with a person who looks like Volodin and then sending a tape of the event to the mass media.

Another option for victims of a smear campaign is appealing not to a court of law but rather to the court of public opinion. During the lead-up to Azerbaijan's November parliamentary elections, Ali Kerimli, leader of the opposition Popular Front of Azerbaijan party, was greeted in June by a group of gay activists at an airport in Istanbul. Insinuations from his political enemies that he is gay have dogged Kerimli for years. In July, Kerimli had apparently had enough and issued the following challenge: "If anyone has any doubts about my manliness, let them send me their wives..." News reports did not provide a reaction from Mrs. Kerimli.