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Russia: Political Parties Rush To Air TV Ads Before Elections

Russia's political and business factions have already started airing political advertisements on television, even though the polls are still months away. NCA Moscow correspondent Floriana Fossato reports that the Central Electoral Commission has begun examining the issue and its consequences.

Moscow, 2 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's political factions have already begun to air thinly disguised campaign ads on television and to tighten their control over media outlets ahead of the country's upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

The campaign fever might seem odd given the fact that the parliamentary elections are not scheduled until December and the presidential vote won't happen until mid-2000. The list of presidential hopefuls hasn't even been decided and it's not yet clear whether the ads conform to Russian campaign laws.

The ads began in May, when NTV, TV6, ORT (partially state-controlled) and RTR (fully state-controlled) started broadcasting five different ads featuring nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. NTV and TV6, controlled by Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky, have continued broadcasting ads.

The groups and parties have good reason to advertise early: president Boris Yeltsin can announce the start of the parliamentary campaign any time until August 19, and in the absence of well-established political parties and grass-roots organizations, the control of electronic and print media remains crucial.

Russian media analysts contend the early advertisements don't count as overt campaign ads since they don't make a direct appeal to voters. They say the ads are simply an early attempt to win voter recognition and, as such, don't violate campaign laws or norms.

That seemed to be the opinion of Russia's Central Electoral Commission (CEC), which didn't pay much attention to the ads at first.

But last month the CEC met to consider the issue. CEC Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov later met with the heads of the top television channels to ask that they avoid broadcasting political ads until the official start of the campaign.

The rush to advertise has political observers concerned. Iulyi Nisnevich, the head of the Center for Legislative and Parliamentary Activity, an independent watchdog, says early advertising deprives the electorate of objective information.

Nisnevich says existing legislation does not deal with political advertising. He adds that a special law is needed.

In the absence of such a law, Nisnevich is concerned about the consequences of the early advertising:

"We are witnessing, in my opinion, a serious phenomenon that can have serious consequences. I would call it a form of pre-electoral information extremism. Moral, professional and ethical norms are being violated. This is obvious. The main point is that, to a certain extent, we have started seeing violations of the [electoral] legislation. [People] may stop believing in the information they receive from television and the print media and this can undermine the foundation of democratic society. Can television stations be considered independent if they defend only their own interests and depend on financial backers for support? A careful analysis of the current situation shows their links to propaganda campaigns."

Veshnyakov agrees and says new legal guidelines to the existing electoral law would help clarify the situation. He says the electoral law now stipulates that state-owned media and media organizations receiving more than 15 percent of their budgets from state funds are supposed to guarantee "equal conditions" to all candidates during the parliamentary campaign.

Top television executives say they expect to receive offers of free-of-charge, already-made programs, as well as money, for the television appearance of various politicians.