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Russia: State TV Deprives Prominent Candidates Of Air Time

By Laura Belin

All candidates running for the Duma are given access to free air time on state-owned radio and television stations. But because of a quirk in the election laws, many of the best-known politicians are absent from the campaign ads for their parties.

Moscow, 29 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Blocs registered for the party-list ballot for next month's Duma elections (December 19) receive free air time nationwide state-owned television and radio stations. And candidates running in single-member districts are eligible for time on regional and local stations.

However, some monologues and debates have featured lesser-known politicians rather than the most prominent candidates from the blocs. Among those conspicuous by their absence are Sergei Stepashin of Yabloko, Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada of the Union of Right Forces, and Aleksei Podberezkin of Spiritual Heritage.

Their absence reflects not campaign strategy, but a new provision in the electoral law that bars candidates from using the free media exposure to promote both their blocs and their individual candidacies.

Article 55 of the law states that candidates on federal party lists who are also running in single-member districts are not allowed to appear on federal radio or television networks on behalf of their blocs. They are only allowed to use local and regional media to promote their individual candidates. Politicians nominated for single-member districts who also appear on an electoral bloc's regional party list may use either the free air time allocated to their bloc or the free air time allocated to their individual candidacies, but not both.

The new restrictions are designed to limit the extent to which politicians can use their positions on federally-registered party lists as a vehicle to win in single-member districts. These limits do not prohibit the affected candidates from being mentioned during free slots on nationwide radio or television. A Central Electoral Commission spokesman told RFE/RL that such candidates are barred only from appearing in debates or delivering monologues themselves. For instance, candidates representing Our Home Is Russia could use free air time to praise the movement's leader, Viktor Chernomyrdin, discussing his work as prime minister or his subsequent diplomatic efforts during the war in Yugoslavia, even though Chernomyrdin is competing for a seat in Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug.

The Movement in Support of the Army has so far adopted precisely that strategy. The party's leader, Viktor Ilyukhin, is running for a seat in Penza Oblast, and he has not spoken to the camera in any of the videos broadcast for his bloc. But his allies have used the bloc's free air time to comment at length on Ilyukhin's activities as the chairman of the Duma's Security Committee, particularly his role in pursuing impeachment proceedings against President Boris Yeltsin.

It is not yet clear how strictly the Central Electoral Commission will enforce Article 55. Sergei Baburin, the top candidate for the Russian All-National Union, spoke at length in a campaign ad last week, even though he is also running for a Duma seat in Omsk Oblast. And both Chernomyrdin and Our Home Is Russia's number two candidate, Vladimir Ryzhkov, made brief remarks in a video aired on Russian Public Television. The alliance of the Congress of Russian Communities and Movement of Yurii Boldyrev has aired a video including lengthy comments by its leaders, but that video shows only audience members -- the speakers remain off-camera.

So far, only one politician has dropped out of a single-member district race in order to campaign for his party on nationwide networks. Ivan Rybkin, the former Duma speaker who now leads the Socialist Party of Russia, withdrew his candidacy for a seat in Voronezh Oblast -- a seat he won in 1995. During a monologue on Russian Public Television last week, Rybkin characterized the new restrictions as "nonsense" but acknowledged the need to abide by the law. He said the future of the Socialist Party is more important to him than winning an individual Duma seat.

The new legal provision hurts smaller electoral blocs more than those with good prospects or deep pockets. Prominent figures such as Sergei Stepashin, Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada can count on being interviewed on news programs between now and election day. And if they want extra exposure, their blocs can pay for more commercials on nationwide radio or television networks.

In contrast, some of the marginal contenders lack both funds to buy extra air time and the opportunity to put their best-known members forward in monologues and debates. A party called the "Bloc of General Andrei Nikolaev and Academician Svyatoslav Fedorov" is in perhaps the most awkward position of all; neither of its namesakes can represent the bloc during nationwide free air time slots.