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'I'll Break Your Jaw!': Mud, Threats, And Tears In Russian Presidential Debates


Pavel Grudinin, the Communist Party candidate for president, campaigning in Kazan on March 15.

The Russian presidential debates ahead of the March 18 election wrapped up on a final trash-TV-style note, complete with a scandalous surprise guest and a near descent into fisticuffs.

The antics in the final debate, broadcast on Russian state television on March 15, capped off a scandal-marred debate season that critics have likened to tawdry reality TV or daytime talk shows.

The multiple debates, which gave the seven challengers to incumbent President Vladimir Putin face time before a national television audience, included incidents of water-throwing, profanity, and walkouts. They were capped off with one candidate threatening to break an opponent's jaw.

Absent from these fracases, of course, was Putin, who is set to win reelection in a landslide and has never participated in a televised debate while running for office in his 18 years in power. Putin and the Kremlin have long cultivated his image as one of a leader who stands high above the everyday political fray.

Aleksei Navalny
Aleksei Navalny

Navalny? No Threat

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman says the Kremlin does not consider opposition leader Aleksei Navalny a threat.

And during an election season in which the Kremlin is pushing to maximize turnout for Putin's all-but-guaranteed reelection, state television has been playing up the debate melees in subsequent news reports.

Here's a recap of some of these incidents from the presidential debates of this campaign season.

'I'll Break Your Jaw, B***h!'

In the final presidential debate on March 15, Maksim Suraikin, the little-known head of the Communists of Russia Party, brought out a gotcha guest to criticize Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin (the two candidates' respective parties are not affiliated). Grudinin left the studio after Suraikin brought a woman on stage who accused Grudinin of evicting her family from their apartment while she worked for him.

Maksim Suraikin with Ella Pamfilova, head of Russia's Central Election Committee
Maksim Suraikin with Ella Pamfilova, head of Russia's Central Election Committee

Grudinin was replaced on stage by one of his campaign's official surrogates, journalist Maksim Shevchenko. He proceeded to hurl insults at Suraikin, who then aggressively approached Shevchenko and threatened to assault him.

"I'll break your jaw, b***h!" Suraikin yelled at Shevchenko as he was escorted from the studio.

'This Is A Circus'

In a debate that aired on state television on March 1, Grudinin denounced the format of the discussion and said he would refuse to participate.

"This is not a debate, this is a circus," said Grudinin, who has been the target of critical coverage from state-run and other federal media during the campaign.

Grudinin criticized the question-and-answer structure and accused the Central Election Commission and federal television channels of making "a show" out of the debates and "ruining attitudes about the presidential election."

"These debates have no right to exist. I'm leaving the studio," he said.

'You're A Whore'

During the first televised debate of the campaign, broadcast February 28, firebrand nationalist candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky hurled insults at liberal candidate Ksenia Sobchak, a liberal who positions herself as a protest candidate against Putin's government.

She proceeded to douse Zhirinovsky with water, to which he responded with profanity and more insults, calling Sobchak a "whore."

Ksenia Sobchak
Ksenia Sobchak

Tearing Up

During a debate broadcast on March 14, Sobchak, a professional journalist and former reality TV host, appeared to tear up as she complained about the verbal abuse she has faced from Zhirinovsky.

"This person calls me a whore and a dirty witch on your program," she told host Vladimir Solovyov, a Kremlin-loyal television journalist who hosts a weekly political talk show that frequently features similar acrimony. "And you allow this to happen every time."

Solovyov responded by saying that the law prevented him from interrupting candidates, while adding: "It horrifies me to think that [the Russian voter] watches all of this, that this is the level of our political culture."

"This is the culture you're offering us," Sobchak replied.

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