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Putin's Challengers Seek Attention With TV Ads

  • James Brooke

Russia's presidential election, now just over two weeks away, features five main candidates, but the vote is widely seen as the vehicle for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to take over as head of state once again. His four opponents, outwardly still hopeful about their chances, are filling the air waves with confident advertising, but some viewers think even the challengers have scant hope of victory.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky is running for president of Russia for the fifth time since 1991.

In his TV ads, he whips a stubborn donkey. He shouts: “This lousy little donkey is a symbol of our country.”

The Carnegie Endowment's Moscow analyst, Masha Lipman, wonders whether Zhirinovsky really wants to win the presidential election:

“He is whipping a donkey, saying Russia is backward," Lipman said. "So is Russia a donkey? Using his whip to make it move. And he exclaims in exasperation: 'It wouldn’t even move!' Then it ends ... with the phrase [Vote for] ‘Zhirinovsky and everything will be fine.’ Which is how he sees Russia today. Which is kind of insulting.”

Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov is running for the fourth time since 1996. His fast-paced TV ad shows images of modern Russia.

Lipman's view: “This Russia is beautiful and grand. This is Russia of big and shiny factories, of beautiful plains and mountains. In every way this is a great and beautiful country, which is somewhat controversial, as it make him look as if he has been president already. If everything looks so good, what is the whole point of competing with the person who rules it?”

Mr. Putin served two terms as president before, stepping down only because the constitution bars a head of state from serving three consecutive terms. He has since been prime minister, but his successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, deferred his own political ambitions to allow Mr. Putin to return to the top job at the Kremlin.

Zyuganov, running second at this point in the presidential race, has his own challenger in Mikhail Prokhorov, a billionaire who is rising in opinion polls. Prokhorov's confident appearance and message appeals to Russia’s growing liberal middle class. He says a new Russia needs a new president.

“A president who returns our belief in ourselves," he says. "Demand more: Mikhail Prokhorov. New president, new Russia!”

Sergei Mironov, candidate of the Fair Russia party, takes up an anti-corruption theme in his ad: Mironov says, “we need to change those in power, and I’ll fight them till the end.”

Despite those fighting words, Mironov did not join the tens of thousands of Russians who protested against corruption in a mass rally in Moscow on February 4.

In the world of TV ads, the missing face belongs to the fifth candidate, Vladimir Putin.

At Moscow’s State Historical Library, Elena Strukova curates a show of Russian political advertisements created for elections in the 20 years since the Soviet Union collapsed. Once Mr. Putin became the official candidate, she says advertising in support of him became unnecessary.

Mr. Putin’s everyday activities dominate Russia’s daily news programs, so advertising might be seen as overkill.

In Russia, the candidate who is not advertising may be the candidate who wins the race.