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The Moscow Times, December 8, 2003

Singular TV Diet on Election Day

By Anna Dolgov

If state-run television channels weren't aiming to make voters forget that any political parties other than Kremlin-backed United Russia were competing in parliamentary elections, they did little to dispel that impression Sunday.

While ballots for the State Duma offer Russians a choice of 23 parties, broadcasts on the main channels featured only one for a large part of the day.

Newscasts on state-controlled Channel One and Rossia were awash with footage of United Russia leaders casting ballots and urging citizens to vote.

They didn't say for whom, but the message was clear.

President Vladimir Putin, who has said repeatedly that United Russia had his full support, told reporters Sunday he could not disclose who got his vote, as that might be interpreted as illegal campaigning on election day.

"But I think my preferences are already known," he added with a grin.

In footage aired on Rossia, Emergency Situations Minister and United Russia co-leader Sergei Shoigu expressed hope that Russians would wake up in a better country on Monday.

Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, who heads United Russia's party list, urged fellow citizens to "wake up and vote."

The party's No. 3 man, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, was also shown casting his ballot and extolling the "extraordinary" day.

Rossia added a brief mention of United Russia's main competitor, the Communist Party, saying that its leader, Gennady Zyuganov, also had voted.

Judging by the two channels' coverage, a viewer unfamiliar with Russian politics might not even be aware that other parties, such as liberal opposition Yabloko and the pro-reform Union of Right Forces, or SPS, were running in the election.

Only in the evening, when, according to the Central Elections Commission, more than 36 percent of Russians had already voted, did Rossia air footage of Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky and SPS co-leader Boris Nemtsov casting ballots.

"The current campaign is certainly not an equal-opportunity campaign," said Alexei Melnikov, a Duma deputy from Yabloko.

"Representatives of United Russia are doing what effectively amounts to violating the law and putting pressure on the voters," Melnikov said in a telephone interview.

Sunday's coverage comes after months of heavy bias in favor of United Russia by all main television channels since the last privately owned national network, TVS, was shut down last summer.

"This is 'managed democracy' in the country. All decisions are made by the presidential administration," SPS Deputy Boris Nadezhdin said by telephone, referring to the Kremlin's term for tightening its grip on power. "I hope that voters will turn out to be more intelligent than those who are staging this show."

In advertisements reminiscent of the 1996 presidential campaign, some Russian web sites urged their visitors to go vote -- or risk being ruled by an authoritarian regime.

In the summer of 1996, then-President Boris Yeltsin was running a tight race against Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov, and pro-Yeltsin media painted a doomsday picture of what a Communist victory might entail.

This Sunday, popular e-mail portal mail.ru posted flashing red-on-black ads that read: "Accustomed to e-mail? Vote Sunday! Or on Monday you will be searching for envelopes."

Another ad read: "Downloading pictures? Vote Sunday! Or on Monday you will be unloading rail cars." A third said: "Following Chelsea games? Vote Sunday! Or after Monday you will be charged with espionage."

The mostly younger constituency of Internet users is considered to have generally above-average education or income. But while the demographic group is often expected by pollsters to favor liberal parties, it is often politically inactive.


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State Duma elections 2003

The Moscow Times, December 8, 2003

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