Putin Is a No-Show at First Televised Debates

Heated, intense, hard-hitting -- not exactly the words to use in describing the campaign season's first televised presidential debates, which aired on ORT and TV Center television Friday.

The second of the day's political face-offs, both were taped a day earlier, was to include acting President Vladimir Putin, who is currently on an official visit to Surgut. But the favored candidate did not show up.

The debates, which will continue until March 24, began on Friday at 8:25 a.m. on ORT as Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov took on three underdogs: former Duma Deputy Ella Pamfilova; Samara Governor Konstantin Titov; and Alexei Podberyozkin, leader of the leftist Spiritual Heritage movement.

In addition to the Muzak and provincial campaign ads preceding the actual stand-off, the event redefined debate in general: There was little dialogue, few emotions and no concrete comments on any of the many pressing issues. In the first half of the morning broadcast, each candidate simply answered the none-too-timely question, "Why did you decide to run for president?"

In his campaign film, Titov, whose popularity rating is currently 1 percent, said he was certain of his coming victory as president. Pamfilova, not only a former Duma deputy but also a former Cabinet member, simply smiled. Communist Party leader Zyuganov repeated his economic platform: raising pensions and wages for school teachers and doctors. Podberyozkin looked out sternly from a freeze-frame shot, with solemn music playing in the background.

The answers to the host's question were superficial at best. Pamfilova just wants to see a woman for president and "is happy with any vote that supports her position," which has yet to be concretely defined. Podberyozkin wants to be president so he can give every Russian $100 and "more if he had it." Titov said "I just want to make life better for Russians, and I know how to make Russia rich."

When the actual debate started, each candidate was allowed to ask any other candidate a question. Only Pamfilova raised eyebrows when she asked, "What do we need to do to all be able to work together?

At the afternoon debate, Putin was not the only one missing. Even Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev, whose rating hovers in the single digits, dispatched a representative. And Podberyozkin was forced to banter listlessly for a second time, without seeing any of his adversaries.

No mention was made of Putin's conspicuous absence. By the time of the broadcast, though, news agencies had been circulating reports that Putin had officially declined to use the free airtime to which each candidate is entitled by law, as viewers were seeing enough of him already.

The two "debaters" spent 20 minutes ruminating on "wither Russia?"

Both seemed relieved when their time was up.

The 30-minute debates will be broadcast as follows: on ORT at 8:25 a.m.; on TV Center at 5:30 p.m.; on RTR at 7:30 p.m.