Duma Losers Scramble to Pay Debts

Parties that failed to garner at least 3 percent in December's State Duma elections are scrambling to pay off debts to the federal budget, largely for television ads during the campaign.

Senior opposition-party officials said Tuesday that covering their television tab was a problem, while calling the law requiring them to make it past 3 percent to be given free airtime an attempt by the authorities to handcuff them in future votes.

The seven parties that found themselves in this position after the vote in December each owe from 146 million to 170 million rubles, or $6.2 to $7.2 million, to state-owned mass media outlets for campaign commercials, the Central Elections Commission said.

The parties have a year to pay up, after which they can be sued by the channels and forced to pay upfront for airtime during future campaigns, according to a 2005 election law.

At least two parties, the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, and Yabloko, are struggling to put together the funds, party leaders said.

Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of Yabloko's Moscow branch, said the sum represented a "considerable expenditure" for the party, should it be unable to collect the money from members' donations and sponsors.

Mitrokhin did say, however, that the gathering of donations was proceeding "rather successfully."

If the party was refused free airtime next time out, Mitrokhin said it would be "no big tragedy," as access in December came only in "dribs and drabs."

He described the 2005 law as "stupid."

"Its main goal is to discourage people from taking part in elections," Mitrokhin said.

SPS federal council member Leonid Gozman said the party was counting on help from sponsors and might introduce membership fees to help pay the debt.

He said the party was in a "critical financial situation" during the campaign, while refusing to confirm or deny a report Tuesday in Noviye Izvestia that SPS had sold one of its offices to help fund its Duma bid. Gozman also criticized the law. "Society should be interested in [political] diversity, rather than threatening to make [us] pay," Gozman said.

SPS owes 159 million rubles to the federal and regional state media, while Yabloko has to pay back 170 million rubles, the Central Elections Commission said in an e-mailed statement on Tuesday.