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
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,
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
"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