Ad Firms Complain of Vote Pressure

Authorities are coercing advertisers into giving billboard space to United Russia ahead of the March 2 presidential election, executives with two ad firms said.

United Russia is backing Dmitry Medvedev, the front-runner endorsed by President Vladimir Putin.

Executives with the advertising companies said local officials had demanded billboard space at below-market rates, exploiting the firms' fears of reprisals if they refuse to comply.

Medvedev's campaign team and the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, which is spearheading his campaign, denied involvement, while officials in the regions concerned declined to comment.

Sergei Metoguz, owner of a small advertising agency in the Voronezh region, said he was putting up United Russia posters on his billboards at a 70 percent discount on the usual price after a local official contacted him.

"If they tell us to do it, we do it," Metoguz said by telephone from Voronezh.

"They control 99 percent of the government here, the property, including the ground my billboards stand on. We depend on them," he said.

"They don't threaten us directly," Metoguz said. "But I fear for the people working for me, so I don't want to find out the consequences if I refuse."

Local officials in Voronezh declined to comment. Medvedev's campaign staff in Moscow said they had not yet launched any ads and were not responsible for those of United Russia. No one at United Russia was available to comment.

A manager with an advertising firm in the Moscow region said she had been forced to cancel contracts with clients to clear space for United Russia posters.

"Eighty percent of our ad space went to them just like that, with one phone call," she said, adding that United Russia paid a "nominal fee" for space worth tens of thousands of dollars.

"Now I have the job of explaining to our paying clients that their billboards must come down," she said on condition of anonymity.

The allegations fit with opposition claims that the election campaign is slanted in favor of Medvedev, with officials using their bureaucratic clout to give him an unfair advantage over his opponents.