Roll the Cameras - Russia's Politicians Are on the Air
But the Western-style smear campaign is strictly taboo
MOSCOW — HIS round face glowing faintly orange from too much makeup, Russian Economics Minister Yegor Gaidar looks straight at the camera as he talks, occasionally remembering to flash viewers an uncharacteristic smile.
As Mr. Gaidar holds forth at length on the merits of Russia's Choice - the pro-reform election bloc he leads that is considered the front runner in the Dec. 12 parliamentary elections - bright images of a kinder, gentler Russia appear on the screen behind him. ``Russia's Choice is YOUR choice,'' he concludes, trying to appear relaxed.
This is political campaigning Russian-style, an odd mix of catchy slogans and cute commercials combined with stiff, bumbling politicians who believe their dull diatribes will entice Russians to vote for their candidates in elections for the country's first non-Communist parliament in more than seven decades.
Television has emerged as the most powerful tool the 13 registered election blocs have harnessed to capture votes in the increasingly heated campaign. Direct political canvassing is not traditional in Russia, so candidates have organized tele-debates, made use of government-sponsored air time, and put together promotional TV spots to get their messages out to voters across Russia's 11 time zones.
``Our ads are designed to reflect on people's emotions and consciences. They're not supposed to have any logical effect,'' says Grigory Kazankov, a 29-year-old biochemist who has taken time off from teaching to become campaign publicity head for Russia's Choice, which supports President Boris Yeltsin. Mr. Kazankov also worked on President Yeltsin's 1991 presidential campaign.
Russia's Choice, which includes such prominent Yeltsin supporters as Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and Finance Minister Boris Fyodorov, differs from the other blocs in that it has received significant funding from private businesses and firms, all of whom have a stake in seeing that market reforms succeed.
The party's commercials, which are now being shown daily on Russian television, are almost Western in content. One shows a rosy-cheeked boy wearing a Russia's Choice campaign pin romping happily with a furry St. Bernard puppy in a lavishly outfitted playroom. Suddenly, the child looks mournfully into the camera. ``I can't vote because I'm too small,'' he whines.
Another depicts a cellist, construction worker, blushing bride, and several well-dressed children sitting stiffly on a wooden bench. A few seconds later they are joined by a man clutching a Russia's Choice brochure. All heads turn to stare with studied fascination. ``We represent your interests,'' the announcer's voice blares.
``There are three things you can always use in commercials: babies, animals, and sex,'' says Bruce Macdonald, and American who heads the Moscow Branch of BBDO Marketing.``They are also the ultimate cop-outs because it really means the advertiser has discovered he doesn't really have anything compelling to say.''
Mr. Macdonald adds that he believes it will take at least five years before Russia learns how to produce effective political advertising. ``There is a Russian tendency to start with what the product or the candidate wants to say, rather than to start with what the audience or the electorate wants to hear,'' he says.
Kazankov, naturally, disagrees. A serious young man in a dark business suit, he casually tosses aside a book titled ``How to Win at Elections'' produced by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in Washington. ``We didn't need any Western ad agencies to help us,'' he says in his modern office at the Russia's Choice headquarters in downtown Moscow. ``We know what we're doing. Some Americans and Brits offered us their consulting services, but when they came here and saw what we had accomplished, they said, `Bravo.' ''
IN fact, Kazankov says he has already rejected one Western-style election practice: the smear campaign. Not long ago, he refused to make use of one TV ad offered on the grounds that it was offensive to the opposition.
The ad, produced by the same firm that made the other commercials for Russia's Choice, showed footage of tanks shooting at the Russian parliament building, or White House, during the hard-line uprising in October that led to the bloody armed revolt. It then depicted a close-up of dictator Joseph Stalin alongside Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the reformist Yavlinsky-Boldyrev-Lukin bloc. Finally, it showed homeless people begging for handouts on the streets of Moscow.
``We thought it wasn't ethical to show the three men together. We didn't want to offend Yavlinsky,'' Kazankov says. But, he adds: ``Later Yavlinsky showed the ad with Gaidar in his place.''
Other blocs have relied on less-sophisticated ads - some even harkening back to the days of Soviet propaganda.
Commercials for the Russian Unity and Accord Party headed by Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakrai, who could emerge as the main opposition to Yeltsin, relied on nostalgia for the good old days, using footage of engineering projects and busy, content workers, eager to continue building a happy Russia. Similarly, the Constructive Ecological Movement stressed the positive and depicted a clean Russia.
But no matter how many attempts are made to produce a slick, glossy image, Russia's election campaign has far to go.