Russia's ruling party avoids election campaign debates

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The Independent Online

After weeks of secondary skirmishing and one big business scandal - the Yukos affair - the campaign for Russia's parliamentary elections opens officially today.

Street posters for next month's poll are already beginning to look tattered round the the edges but the parties hope something like a real contest will begin with the start of nightly state-funded television advertising, and televised candidate debates.

They may be disappointed. The biggest party in the Duma, the United Russia Party, which was set up as a vehicle for Vladimir Putin before the last parliamentary elections, has announced it will not participate in debates. Some say this is because, apart from Mr Putin, who as President, must appear above the fray, United Russia has no media stars to compete with leaders of some minor parties.

The consensus is that it could only lose from being seen to descend to the same level as the other parties, and being forced to defend its record.

By a quirk of the electoral and historical calendar, today is also the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution and a public holiday, now suitably rededicated to Accord and Reconciliation. Almost like the old days, Red Square will host a ceremonial parade, but not of the massed, red-banner waving kind. This year's march-past will be a sombre reprise of the parade of 7 November 1941, when troops marched direct from Red Square to the trains that would take them to the front. More than 100 survivors are expected to march again, with several hundred other Second World War veterans and 800 military cadets.

Reserving Red Square for an official parade also has the advantage that the Communist Party will not have the field to itself on the holiday many Russian still associate with the Bolsheviks. A ragtag bunch of Communist members of the Duma and others had to make their annual pilgrimage to the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square yesterday. Their leader, Gennady Zyuganov, challenged the leaders of United Russia to join the television debates and show their colours.

There will be a bigger Communist rally today, by the Kremlin Wall on the edge of Red Square, as there has been every year since the Soviet Union collapsed, and sundry red banners could be seen around town yesterday, mostly nursed by elderly people who had come to Moscow especially for "their" rally.

Several other smaller parties will use today's holiday to kick off their election campaigns. They include the small Monarchist party, and the bigger and reformist and centrist Yabloko party, led by Grigory Yavlinsky. If anyone has gained from the Yukos affair, it is Yabloko, or the more radical reformist party called the Alliance of Right Forces (SPS), which can use the affair simultaneously to attack the "oligarchs" (for their excesses and the Putin government (for its timidity in reform).

Yesterday, from Rome, Mr Putin addressed mostly his foreign audience when he insisted that the pursuit of Yukos was not about wealth or reversing Russia's privatisation programme, but about corruption.

Accusing foreign journalists of distorting the story because they were in the pay of Yukos will play well at home, where United Russia is another party that has gained from the Yukos affair, as many people believed it was high time the government clipped the oligarchs' wings.

No fewer than 23 parties are registered to contest the elections.