Russians pull out political dirty tricks ahead of elections

November 8, 2011

Even the not-so-casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that with the elections less than a month away, Bruce Willis was one of the front-runners in the campaign for Russia’s equivalent of Congress.

Hardly. The tough-guy American actor has been occupying prime billboard space for months, but he’s the attention-getting face of Trust Bank’s advertising campaign. Look around for political advertising — it’s far less lively, mostly discreet and faceless, with the exception of perennial bad boy Vladimir Zhirinovsky making an unpleasant ethnic appeal.

But having mastered the celebrity endorsement, Russians are fast taking on the political dirty trick. The audacity of the gimmick reveals the depth of voter disengagement, along with the height of official arrogance.

Over the past week or so, a civic-minded series of posters has sprouted up along avenues and in subway stations in the white, blue and red national colors, urging voters to go to the polls on Dec. 4 for the State Duma elections. Now even more of those posters are up, looking very much the same, except they have the logo of the ruling United Russia party at the top, with a vote-for-us check mark.

“I’ll explain this phenomenon to you,” said Andrei Buzin, who monitors elections for an American-style, and even American-financed, civic watchdog called Golos (Vote).

After the federal election commission disbursed the equivalent of $230 million to local commissions to prepare for the elections, he said, the city of Moscow awarded its advertising contract to a favored firm — violation No. 1, because it has had the contract for 10 years or so in apparent violation of the law on state purchasing.

“The company is also in charge of advertising materials for United Russia,” Buzin said. “That’s why the images are the same. Of course, the Moscow city election commission knows this very well. The same person has been head of it for 16 years.”

So the city paid for the first round of ads, he said, and United Russia paid for the second, adding its logo to the poster. It’s a gross violation of the election law, he said, and attempts have been made to stop it. And yes, it’s only one step of many toward elections widely expected to be unfair.

“You must have independent courts in order to make such complaints,” he said, explaining patiently. “We cannot complain about this. The courts will never accept it. Without independent courts, we cannot get very far.”

“This is only natural, because United Russia is not a party in the classical meaning of the word. United Russia is a branch of the administration,” Buzin said. In other words, why not use the same advertising if the ruling party and the country are one?

Lilia Shibanova, executive director of Golos, keeps tabs, writing reports, holding news conferences. Golos, formed in 2000 to protect voting rights, receives money from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy and the British Embassy. The National Democratic Institute offers training and the International Republican Institute helped produce education videos for voters.

Buzin has constructed an online map, posting violations reported by citizens across the country. The media savvy send cellphone videos of officials unlawfully touting their party. Another shows a teacher reporting pressure from higher-ups to vote their way. A recording listens in on a bribe-for-vote offer. Many find it all disillusioning, and elections best avoided.

No wonder Russians love their celebrities as much as they dislike their politicians.

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