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Russia: Television Smears Yavlinsky Before Vote

By Laura Belin

In the final week before the presidential election, Russian public television conducted a campaign to discredit presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky. The smear tactics are the more surprising as Yavlinsky posed little threat to the overwhelming favorite, acting President Vladimir Putin. RFE/RL's Laura Belin reports.

Moscow, 27 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky came to prominence in Russia in the closing days of the Soviet era, when he introduced an ill-fated "500 days" reform package. When the plan was scrapped, Yavlinsky left the government. In 1993, he formed the Yabloko political bloc, and he ran unsuccessfully for president in 1996.

Four years later, Yavlinsky ran again, this time finishing a distant third. The negative coverage he received on state-controlled Russian Public Television, ORT, certainly did not help.

Yavlinsky had been receiving extensive media coverage of his campaign. But in this final week, coverage of Yavlinsky on ORT has changed drastically in tone.

Earlier this month, ORT aired many news reports casting Yavlinsky in a favorable light, depicting him in such commendable activities as attending church and donating blood. Yavlinsky continues to receive plentiful coverage, but this week ORT's prime-time newscast ("Vremya") has aired reports that undermine his candidacy.

Much of the criticism centers on campaign financing. ORT reports charge that Yavlinsky has exceeded the legal limits on campaign spending, partly by illegally accepting money from abroad. ORT accuses him of using that money for "dirty tricks," including to pay for dozens of newspaper articles and television appearances. Such claims may have merit, but it is notable that ORT correspondents have not accused Putin's campaign of bribing journalists to publish favorable materials, even though Putin also receives plenty of favorable coverage in the print media.

ORT criticizes Yavlinsky on several other counts of which Putin could also be considered guilty -- such as refusing to debate his opponents in person, or campaigning on military bases.

Speaking to RFE/RL on Thursday (March 23), Yavlinsky commented on the information broadcast about him on the two main state-controlled channels. He sees the smear campaign as a reflection of Putin's style.

"In Russia, there have never been dirtier elections than the [last] Duma elections, and there has never been a dirtier presidential campaign than now. These are the marks of Vladimir Putin. So we can say that one of the aims of the presidential campaign is obvious today. We can all see how our political life, state television, will be working and what the news will mean."

ORT correspondents have not stopped at criticizing Yavlinsky's campaign methods -- they have also gotten personal. One ORT report, noting that Yavlinsky had suffered a heart attack but not mentioning that it was 18 months ago, speculated that certain chemicals may have been introduced into Yavlinsky's blood following the heart attack. It concluded that the blood he donated recently is therefore "of no use for anything."

More bizarrely, ORT reports alleged that Yavlinsky has undergone cosmetic surgery to enhance his appearance. The channel presented two photographs of Yavlinsky, one taken in January and one taken this month. The candidate did not look substantially different in the two photographs, but the correspondent asked rhetorically, "He got younger, didn't he?"

Ludicrous such allegations may be, but anecdotal evidence suggests that some voters may not dismiss them easily. One voter, Lyudmila Petrovna, told RFE/RL she decided to vote for Putin after she heard that Yavlinsky had had plastic surgery.

"For the second presidential elections, I decided to vote for Yavlinsky, but unfortunately he disappointed me also because of the facts, the information, that he's done something to his looks, that he [is trying to look] younger by having cosmetic surgery. No, I think that for a man that shows a leaning towards... No, I'm sorry, I won't say the word. I just stopped believing in that man."

The change in ORT's attitude to Yavlinsky is not only visible in newscasts. Last week (March 20) the network refused to honor a contractual obligation to broadcast a pro-Yavlinsky commercial, one in a series of advertisements imagining life after this year's presidential election. ORT said the ad showed disrespect for state authorities and for voters. A Yabloko spokesman told RFE/RL that ORT also refused to broadcast two interview programs in which Yavlinsky was scheduled to appear last weekend.

Whatever the reason for ORT's about-face on Yavlinsky, the intensity of the campaign was striking given that the Yabloko leader does not pose a serious electoral threat to Putin. But after a less than sparkling finish in the elections, his political future may be in doubt, and his example will serve as a warning: those who challenge Putin can expect to face the heavy artillery of public television. (Tuck Wesolowsky and Sophie Lambroschini contributed to this report.)