Campaign Starts Without Medvedev

MTAlexander Vasilyevsky, the first visitor to an office set up by Medvedev's election campaign in central Moscow, preparing to deliver a complaint Monday.
Presidential campaigning began in earnest Monday, with candidates sparring over Russia's place in the world in televised debates and the broadcast of a series of patriotic television commercials.

But Dmitry Medvedev, the Kremlin-favored candidate expected to win the March 2 election, snubbed them all, choosing instead to chair a presidential council meeting on national social projects. His campaign headquarters opened a Moscow office where voters can go to ask questions and lodge complaints.

In the first debate, aired Monday evening on TV Center television, the other three candidates fielded questions about their campaign platforms from host Nikolai Petrov. The candidates offered no surprises, and the atmosphere felt more like a discussion than a debate.

Asked what Russia's role should be in Europe, Andrei Bogdanov, the little-known leader of the Democratic Party, said the European Union was Russia's main ally.

"Russia can bring its values to Europe. We have a big Muslim population, and we can teach Europe how to behave with the Muslim world," Bogdanov said.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, said the EU and "the Anglo-Saxons" had never been allies but "rivals" of Russia.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov called for closer ties with Ukraine and Belarus.

Medvedev, whose popularity has soared to around 70 percent after President Vladimir Putin blessed his candidacy in December, has refused to participate in the debates. The other candidates are polling at less than 12 percent.

Medvedev's campaign headquarters opened on Monday a small office on Pereyaslavsky Pereulok in central Moscow to field voters' questions. The office -- with a lobby with six chairs and Medvedev's portrait and biography on the wall -- was largely empty Monday.

The first visitor, Alexander Vasilyevsky, 54, said he had come on behalf of fellow residents of an apartment building on Leninsky Prospekt to complain about losing a playground to a city development project.

Alexander Krutov, an official with the Moscow branch of United Russia, made a note of the complaint.

Krutov said he had received five telephone calls by early afternoon. "Most of them are from people seeking to solve personal problems like pensions and leaky pipes," he said.

Medvedev is running as United Russia's candidate.


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Bogdanov ice fishing in a campaign ad shown on Rossia television Monday.
Other than the debates, the other three candidates are using free ads on state television to showcase their positions.

Bogdanov's ad shows him in camouflage, fishing on a frozen lake in his native Mozhaisk district, 50 kilometers from Moscow.

Bogdanov says to the camera that if you give someone a fish, "you'll make him happy and full for a day."

"Give people a hook, and they'll be like that their whole lives," he says.

He says red tape needs to be cut so that the middle class can open businesses more easily, "like in European countries."

"People from the middle class know how to use the hook," he says, slightly shaking his long, black hair.

"Let's take the bait," he concludes.

Zyuganov's ad shows him walking down a dark and gloomy corridor.

"I'll take forward our party's ideologies despite these unclear times," he says. "The machine of the powers that be hopes that I will surrender, but I won't."

Zyuganov reaches the end of the corridor, where light and a group of smiling journalists wait for him.

The ad ends with the slogan: "For order and justice. For Zyuganov."

Zyuganov's campaign headquarters plans to print special issues of the newspapers Sovietskaya Rossia and Pravda with Zyuganov's complete biography.

Zhirinovsky sternly says in his ad that his whole campaign platform is built around the notion that the government's $158 billion stabilization fund should be used "for the good of the people," not saved to cushion the economy if oil prices fall.

The presidential campaign officially began Saturday, but the ads and debates only started Monday, the first working day.

The first billboards urging people to vote appeared over the weekend. Moscow city-sponsored billboards show Mayor Yury Luzhkov inviting people to vote "for the future of the country."

The Central Elections Commission is also running a campaign to get out the vote. In one television ad, well-known television host Nikolai Drozdov says he used to talk about animal life but now he wants to focus on "the people's world."

"People and animals are different because we don't follow our instinct but make intelligent decisions," he says. "Make your decision on March 2. Be happy!"

Staff Writer Svetlana Osadchuk contributed to this report.