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TV Campaign Sputters to Life in Russia’s Presidential Race

May 14, 1996

MOSCOW (AP) _ Television ad campaigns for Russia’s presidential race kicked off Tuesday with two 10-minute spots for an obscure candidate. But even when the big guys get their turn, the TV ads may remain a sideshow in a very tight contest.

Air time is going begging.

The Communists are basically uninterested in TV campaigning, and incumbent Boris Yeltsin is already drowning in exposure.

Hardly any of the candidates are willing to debate or go live. And few are expected to buy much time after TV politics flopped in December’s parliamentary election race: The party that opted for grass-roots politicking across Russia over TV ads, the Communists, won the most votes.

``The candidates prefer either monologues or slots prepared in advance,″ said Yelena Nikitan, head of the election desk at Russian Television, or RTR. ``They don’t (debate) because of fear and lack of experience.″

Neither of the two national networks _ ORT and RTR _ have sold a single time slot for political ads yet, according to the Moscow Times.

Each of the 11 candidates gets a limited amount of free time on national television and radio, and can buy additional time. Most are likely to use only the free time: a total of 15 minutes on each of the two national networks, plus some time on the St. Petersburg station and on radio.

Yeltsin, whose activities are often the lead item on the nightly news and who counts the nation’s media chiefs among his supporters, has little need of more TV time. Some analysts say it could backfire if voters perceive television coverage as too heavily weighted towards Yeltsin.

The Communists have said their campaign budget won’t allow them to buy much nationwide time for their candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, Yeltsin’s main rival. Instead, they’ll concentrate on regional media and the well-organized grassroots techniques that led them to the top of the parliamentary elections in December.

Yeltsin’s first slot on nationwide TV is on May 21 and Zyuganov’s is Wednesday.

Only ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose use of television is generally acknowledged to be masterful, has expressed much interest in spending campaign funds on expensive TV time.

``We’ll buy everything they offer us,″ his spokesman, Viktor Filatov, has said.

Businessman Martin Shakkum, whose support is so small he doesn’t show up in polls, appeared in Tuesday’s ad. ``I am one of you,″ he told Russian Television viewers, and spent his air time face-to-face with the camera, introducing himself.

Most Russians apparently view the June 16 election as a two-man contest between Yeltsin and Zyuganov.

Another candidate, eye surgeon Svyatoslav Fyodorov, has called for a ``government of popular unity″ including representatives of all leading political forces. He made the suggestion Monday as he met with leading businessmen who, warning of dangerous polarization, have called for political compromise.

Fyodorov is one of three centrist or pro-reform candidates _ along with Grigory Yavlinsky and Alexander Lebed _ whose support Yeltsin is seeking.

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