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Russia: Putin Sees Little To Gain In Traditional Campaigning

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Acting President Vladimir Putin's decision not to use any traditional methods -- television commercials, free air-time, debates with other candidates -- in the campaign for next week's presidential election has rankled other candidates and evoked criticism in his own ranks. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 17 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Opinion polls regularly give Putin the backing of more than 50 percent of the Russian electorate. Every one of his public meetings has been heavily covered by all Russian television channels, state-owned and private. So why should he risk overkill through traditional campaigning?

This reasoning, according to political analyst Andrei Ryabov, is probably behind Putin's decision at the campaign's outset not to use the free television air-time given to candidates either for advertisements or debates, and not to buy time for video clips. Ryabov says Putin's campaign staff must have decided it was better not to risk "oversalting" the product.

Putin and his staff, however, gave a different reason for the decision not to campaign. With open condescension, Putin put political commercials in the same category as ordinary ads. He said that commercials in general are only good for comparing what is better or worse. He also stressed that he would rather be judged on his actions, not his commercials.

Analyst Andrei Piontkovsky says such rhetoric is actually an integral part of Putin's campaign:

"Putin's team obviously thinks it's necessary to go on exploiting his image as the father of the nation, the savior of the motherland who doesn't want to lower himself to such things as video clips and debates."

The head of Putin's campaign staff, Dmitry Medvedev, has a very different view of the matter. Medvedev suggests that it would be unfair for Putin to exploit further his natural advantage as acting president and prime minister:

"All [Putin's] actions as [prime minister and acting president] should be seen as part of his electoral campaign. There's no way to avoid that -- it's the reality for a person in high office. That's why, probably, he doesn't need any special method -- such as debates -- for getting his opinion across to voters. His position is clear as it is." As a result, Putin's campaign staff has largely restricted itself to rebuttals of critical press coverage. After the daily "Sevodnya" wrote an investigative article about Putin's campaign two weeks ago, his staff sent an angry letter to the paper, accusing critical journalists of being "enemies of civil peace in Russia."

But some of Putin's supporters themselves do not agree with this above-the-battle strategy. Gennady Raykov, a pro-Putin State Duma (lower house) deputy, told "Sevodnya" in an interview this week that Putin's campaign staff is suffering from what he called dangerous "euphoria" about their candidate's chances of an easy victory. Raykov said that the staff has made several mistakes in the campaign -- one of the biggest being its failure to provide printed material to hand out on visits to the outlying regions.

Raykov said most voters in his district can't afford to buy a newspaper -- and therefore haven't read the open letter from Putin that was published in most newspapers weeks ago. He also said that many Russians don't understand why Putin refuses to participate in debates with other candidates.

Some analysts agree with the view that Putin supporters are unhappy about his absence from public debates. They say that participating in debates would have forced Putin to provide details of his vaguely defined program, which has been designed to appeal to a broad spectrum. He has so far carefully avoided doing that so as not to alienate any voters.

Analyst Ryabov says that Putin would probably not have performed well in debates. He says that Putin's television style is largely oriented toward speeches and announcements. Even on his trips to the regions, according to the analyst, Putin avoids mingling directly with a crowd. This may reflect his personality, Ryabov adds, but it also shows his lack of political experience.