TV Debates Decided Without Medvedev

The Central Elections Commission on Tuesday finalized the schedule for televised debates between candidates in the March 2 presidential election. But viewers won't be seeing front-runner Dmitry Medvedev squaring off against his three opponents.

Medvedev, the first deputy prime minister and President Vladimir Putin's preferred successor, has opted to take Putin's tack and forego the debates, which will be shown on Channel One, Rossia television and TV Center beginning next week.

Medvedev is "choosing to work" instead of participating in the debates, which would use up his time "at the expense of the voters," Vyacheslav Volodin, a senior official with United Russia -- which nominated Medvedev -- said at the commission's headquarters Tuesday. "We can't allow this to happen," Volodin said.

Medvedev's poll numbers and the history of Russian elections seem to offer little motivation for him to debate policy with other candidates.

Medvedev had the backing of 82 percent of the 1,600 decided voters polled by the Levada Center in 46 regions from Jan. 18 to 21, and neither Putin nor former President Boris Yeltsin ever participated in a televised debate ahead of elections.

Furthermore, Medvedev has enjoyed a huge advantage in television coverage in recent weeks over the other candidates -- Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Democratic Party of Russia leader Andrei Bogdanov.

Zyuganov's campaign chief, Ivan Melnikov, accused Medvedev on Tuesday of undermining the election with his refusal to debate and threatened that Zyuganov could follow suit. "In a democratic state, a candidate's withdrawal from debates would have meant his withdrawal from the race," he said. The final decision on Zyuganov's participation was to be made Thursday.

Zhirinovsky and Bogdanov, whose tiny party is widely considered a Kremlin project aimed at splitting off votes from democratic opposition parties, were more upbeat about Medvedev's decision. "We will get the chance to criticize them all," Zhirinovsky said, Interfax reported.

Bogdanov, who told reporters Tuesday that he proudly heads up the country's largest Masonic Lodge, said he would like to ask Medvedev if he knows what life is like "on the other side of the tracks."

"I bet he doesn't," Bogdanov said.

Candidates were allocated 42 hours of free airtime, including debates and campaign ads on radio and television.

Asked what Medvedev's campaign spots would look like, Volodin said, "You'll know them when you see them."

TV Center will air 10 debates at 5:50 p.m. over the next month beginning Monday. Channel One will air debates Tuesdays from 7:05 a.m. to 8 a.m. beginning next week. Rossia television will broadcast debates Thursdays at 10:55 p.m. Central Elections Commission member Maya Grishina said the debates would be canceled if every candidate refused to participate. Should only one candidate agree to debate, he would have the entire time to himself.