Russian TV channels are providing free campaign airtime for the 18 parties and five electoral blocs participating in December's elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. It is unclear how effective the broadcasts will prove in stirring up voter enthusiasm. The party of power, the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia, has refused to take part in any televised debates. But other parties look set to enjoy the rare opportunity to be in the spotlight.
Moscow, 11 November 2003 (RFE/RL) � In a studio adorned in the white-blue-red color scheme of the Russian flag, under hot strobe lights and lively music, RTR state television's Ernest Matskiavichus is doing his best to create a state of suspense: "Good evening! In accordance with electoral legislation, we are now beginning live televised debates. I�m Ernest Matskiavichus. I ask today's participants to please take their places."
The televised debates will be running every weeknight until 5 December, two days before the vote takes place. But for many, they began on a disappointing note. Unified Russia, the pro-Kremlin party that is expected to win an easy first-place victory, has refused to participate in the debates.
Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, the head of Unified Russia's party list, announced the group's intention to forgo the debates, saying they were a "waste of time" and "easy" advertising for weak parties.
The announcement was hotly criticized by the Communists, who are expected to make a second-place showing in the vote. Ivan Melnikov, the party's deputy head, said the absence of the main candidate makes the debates "senseless."
But for most other parties, the televised debates are a rare opportunity for the national TV exposure usually enjoyed only by Unified Russia. Each party is allocated 16 hours of free airtime to be divided between debates and advertisements.
On Monday (10 November) night, RTR television dedicated an entire hour of prime time to a debate between Federation Council Chairman and Party of Life head Sergei Mironov and Nikolai Derzhavin, a relatively unknown official who is a representative of Russian Patriarch Aleksii II and third on the People's Party list. Both the Party of Life and the People's Party are generally supportive of Putin. Some observers suspect them of being created with Kremlin approval as a way of drawing votes from the opposition.
But at least superficially, their styles are markedly different. A television advertisement for the Party of Life features smiling families, blue skies, and chirping birds �- all meant to illustrate its goal of "improving life." "For doctors and teachers, a minimum salary of 6,000 rubles [$200]," the party's TV ad says. "Increased health-care spending. For young families, a free mortgage."
Derzhavin, meanwhile, describes the People's Party program by invoking a tsarist-era slogan: "The People's Party: For the people, the fatherland, the faith."
Matskiavichus warns the candidates to keep the answers short, and the debate begins, with the RTR host firing off questions from callers on topics ranging from the death penalty and homosexuality to the oligarchs, God, and the powers of parliament.
State-controlled ORT is also televising debates and political advertisements in two half-hour blocs in the morning and evening, as is the TVTs channel and a number of radio stations. Russia's other national �- but formally privately owned -� channel, NTV, is broadcasting only paid events, like the popular talk show "Freedom of Speech," which started debates last Friday (7 November).
The show's host, Savik Shuster, said one positive trend to emerge from the debates is "going back to live broadcasts." Since September he had been prohibited from airing live, a step that many media watchers criticized as a move toward censorship. All channels are free to broadcast paid political advertisements, but so far most parties are taking advantage of the free blocks of airtime.
An ad for the opposition Union of Rightist Forces, which aims to appeal to young, business-oriented voters, shows its leaders traveling in a private jet called "Russia." Party leaders Boris Nemtsov, Anatolii Chubais, and Irina Khakamada, reclining in creamy leather-upholstery seats, are animatedly discussing Russia's future. "Only people like these, educated and sober, free and energetic, will bring Russia to success and prosperity," Nemtsov says, as the announcer adds, "Choose your future -� The Union of Rightist Forces!"
The Communist Party is going for a more classic style. One advertisement opens with pictures of the legendary "Aurora," the ship whose shots signaled the storming of the tsar's Winter Palace and the symbolic breaking point of the October Revolution.
Short and to the point, a TV speaker announces the Communists' program in the style of a Soviet-era newscaster: Give the country's resources back to the people. Limit housing costs to 10 percent of income.
Boris Makarenko works with the Center for Political Technologies, which has advised politicians in previous campaigns. He notes that this campaign may suffer in comparison to past election seasons, which followed or preceded a political crisis like the storming of the White House in 1993, a feared Communist revival in 1995, and the post-Yeltsin era in 1999. "We are seeing the first television appearances of party leaders and debates between them. The flow of campaign material will be increasing every day now. The main reason for the dullness of the campaign is not that the parties are not sufficiently active," he said. "The main reason is that these elections really lack intrigue."
Recent opinion polls indicate that Communists are losing some ground, holding about 23 percent support, while Unified Russia is stable at 27 percent-30 percent. Analysts say just three other parties, at the most, may make it over the necessary 5 percent hurdle to enter parliament: the Union of Rightist Forces, the democratic opposition party Yabloko, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.
Much depends on voter turnout. With no pressing political crises on the horizon, Makarenko says fewer Russians are likely to cast their ballots than in 1999, which saw a 61 percent turnout. "This time everything seems to be stable. The winner of [the] presidential elections next spring is obvious," he said. "So all the parties are trying to do is to optimize their position in the Duma. That kind of intrigue is not sufficiently thrilling for the voters."
A low turnout is generally believed to work to the advantage of the Communists, due to their older, active electorate. Recent announcements by Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, second on Unified Russia's party list, appear to reflect such concerns. Shoigu proposed making voting mandatory and suggested that Russians lose their citizenship if they abstained from voting more than three times.