Foreign Reporters Stuck With 'Dreary' Vote

MTReporters with France's BFM TV following Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov in central Moscow on Thursday.
When journalists tell you that a story they are working on is "boring" and "dreary," you know it is unlikely to capture the imaginations of readers and television viewers worldwide.

Those are precisely the words that foreign reporters are using to describe Sunday's presidential election, which First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is expected to win by a landslide.

Even though Western media interest in Russia has picked up in recent years, the election has failed to win much attention because of a lack of drama, said journalists from U.S., British, French and German media outlets.

"The debates on television are very boring," said Marie Jego, the Moscow correspondent for French daily newspaper Le Monde. "There is nothing in the atmosphere to indicate that a real election campaign is under way. There is no pluralism and no exchange of different opinions."

Another reason for the lack of media attention is the unusually exciting presidential race in the United States, which has been pushing Russia out of the headlines, some journalists said.

The British media are "much more excited by the U.S. election and by Hillary Clinton imploding this week than they are by Dmitry Medvedev winning this rather dreary, rather Soviet process," said Luke Harding, the Moscow bureau chief of the Guardian.

The election campaign has certainly been less suspenseful than the U.S. race, where two Democratic senators, Clinton and Barack Obama, are competing for the chance to end eight years of Republican domination of the White House.

No such changes are likely to happen in the Kremlin. Medvedev holds a commanding lead in polls thanks to his close association with outgoing President Vladimir Putin.

He has also enjoyed blanket coverage on television and has refused to participate in debates with his opponents, while opposition candidates who might have attacked him more sharply, such as former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, were denied registration on various pretexts.

Nonetheless, more foreign media outlets are following the current Russian election than the 2004 race, which ended with Putin being voted back into office, according to data from the Central Elections Commission.

A total of 183 foreign media outlets are accredited to follow Sunday's vote, compared with 151 four years ago, an increase of more than 20 percent, the commission said in response to a query. It did not say what countries the media outlets represented.

The Foreign Ministry did not respond to a similar query about accreditation figures.

Many of the journalists surveyed for this report said Western media interest in Russia had increased over the past few years thanks to the country's growing economic might and its resurgence on the world stage.

"The interest is not these events that are called elections but in other changes taking place in Russia," said Lorraine Millot, the Moscow correspondent for left-wing French daily Liberation.

Yonatan Pomrenze, the producer for NBC News in Moscow, said NBC's television coverage of Russia had increased since his arrival in 2005.

"Over the past 1 1/2 years, we have been getting more stories on air," Pomrenze said. "We have been getting more interest and more varied stories ... not just the standard ones you'd expect."

Some news organizations, such as The Associated Press, have used the election to reflect on Putin's legacy and what lies ahead for Russia. There seemed to be few opportunities for interesting journalism in December, when Putin backed Medvedev's candidacy and made it clear that he would continue to play a major role after 2008, Lynn Berry, news editor at the AP bureau in Moscow, said in an e-mail message.

"The suspense seemed to be gone, the election a foregone conclusion," said Berry, a former editor of The Moscow Times.

"But as the election approached we have seen significant interest in stories that assess the eight years of Putin's presidency, even more remarkable in retrospect, and look forward at how the Putin-Medvedev duo will rule," she said.

Most of the media outlets contacted for this report said they were devoting roughly the same level of resources to this election as they did to the 2004 vote.

The one exception was the BBC. Several journalists at the British radio and television broadcaster said BBC's coverage was more active than in 2004 -- but again, it was largely because the vote provided a chance to look back at Putin's legacy and look forward at Russia's future under Medvedev.

"The question that the British media are asking is, 'What is Medvedev's Russia going to be like?'" Duncan Bartlett, a senior European business correspondent for the BBC, said by telephone from London.

"Is it going to be our friend?" he continued. "Is it still going to present a big business and economic opportunity for us, or is Russia going to go back to being our ... Cold War enemy?"

British media interest in Russia has been especially strong because of the troubled relationship between the two countries, said Harding, the Guardian correspondent.

There has been intense demand for news about Russian-British relations ever since the 2006 radioactive poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko, Harding said.

British prosecutors have blamed the killing on Andrei Lugovoi, a former Russian security services officer, and demanded his extradition. Moscow's refusal to comply triggered a chain of events that has included tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and the closure of the British Council's offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.

"In general, I would say that the interest in Russia from Britain is galactic," Harding said. "I think it's enormous. I think you can't overstress it."

It is a vastly different situation in Germany, where mighty Russia has been eclipsed by tiny Liechtenstein, the Alpine country at the heart of a major tax-evasion scandal, said one German journalist.

The Russian election is also getting less coverage in the German media because of the U.S. presidential race and the predictability of Sunday's vote, said the journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his employer did not authorize him to speak to other media.

"When everything is clear from the start, the story is not very sexy," he said.

Staff Writer Nikolaus von Twickel contributed to this report.