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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Friendly Foes and Bare Butts On TV

Over 60 hours of televised debates await voters in the month-long run-up to State Duma elections on Dec. 7, as do dozens of political ads that run the gamut from splashy spots with bare backsides to home video-esque footage of stuffed shirts mumbling next to their computer screens.

The first debate Monday evening likely did little to attract anyone's attention, as the election marathon kicked off with a strikingly friendly match-up between the Homeland bloc and the Party of Life in Channel One's ice-blue and silver studio.

Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Federation Council and founder of the Party of Life, which recently formed a bloc with Russia's Rebirth, hammered home his populist plank of raising salaries tenfold, from 600 rubles ($20) to 6,000 ($200).

Representing Sergei Glazyev's Homeland party, Viktor Gerashchenko agreed, touting his own party's populist initiative to raise taxes on oil companies and redistribute that money through a fund to support science, education and medicine.

Gerashchenko, a former Central Bank chairman, holds the No. 4 spot on Homeland's federal list.

United Russia had been scheduled to join them in a three-way debate, but on the eve of the Central Elections Commission lottery last week to determine the matchups, it announced it could not be bothered to participate.

The election law requires that state channels provide the 21 parties eligible for free airtime with about one hour to get their message out.

Instead of reworking its schedule, Channel One decided to divide United Russia's time among the candidates who show up, and moderator Pyotr Marchenko gave each an open floor for two minutes.

Taking a new tack, Mironov said the country needed to boost its manufacturing sector. With a giant digital clock ticking down, he raced through a monologue bewailing that 40 percent of Russia's information technology is imported. "Alarm bells are already ringing!" he said with animated flourish.

A gong sounded, signaling the end of his time, and he promptly adopted a pose akin to Rodin's "The Thinker," to contemplate Gerashchenko's response.

"I agree," said Homeland's grandfatherly figure, looking mildly bored. Having settled that, he then rambled off on tangential diatribes like the ineffectiveness of banks meant to support the agriculture sector and the sorry state of the domestic aviation industry.

In a square-off peppered with gems of wisdom such as "It's shameful to live poor" (Gerashchenko) and "Without quality of life, what are we?" (Mironov), it was not immediately clear where the platforms actually diverged.

Perhaps sensing this, the moderator asked the two, "If you get along so well, why aren't you running together?"

Amid much shrugging, Mironov pointed out that his party had been around now for "two to three years, while for Homeland it's more like two to three months." Gerashchenko offered his regrets at the lack of consolidation among "smart, skilled people ready and willing to work for the people."

President Vladimir Putin has expressed his support in the past for both Russia's Rebirth-Party of Life and Homeland, and the two blocs have spoken of their willingness to collaborate in the next Duma -- if they clear the 5 percent barrier.

At stake in these debates are the 1 percent to 2 percent of the popular vote that can push a party past the 5 percent threshold. Parties that meet the cutoff will be represented in the Duma for the next four years; those that don't can only hope for representation among individuals who win single-mandate seats.

Less than an hour later, Mironov was on the air again, on Rossia, this time matched against Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II's assistant Nikolai Derzhavin from the People's Party.

There was no mad dash from one studio to the next. Channel One recorded its debate Sunday night, while Rossia broadcast its debate live. If Channel One's debate studio looks like a sophisticated talk show set, Rossia's resembles a game show.

After impassioned slogans -- Mironov's "6,000 ruble salaries, not 600!" (again) and Derzhavin's original "Vote for No. 12," the ballot position for his party -- which themselves followed a segment of questions from the studio audience, Rossia's daily campaign season programming transitioned from debates to political ads.

Four free political ads, or roliki, were run end-to-end.

A naked man moons the camera as he climbs into a Zhiguli in a New Course-Automotive Russia clip as bloc leader Viktor Pokhmelkin declares "We defend drivers!"

Colonel General Nikolai Troshev, the presidential adviser on Cossack issues, loves the army and the people, the People's Party tells us.

Bathed in warm golden tones, Union of Right Forces leaders Boris Nemtsov, Irina Khakamada and Anatoly Chubais speak of the country's future from the interior of a capacious airplane with distinctly unproletarian beige leather seats.

Finally, a low-budget True Patriots clip of a man mumbling in front of a computer informs viewers that this Islamic party, well ... exists.

If these sound amusing, viewers should just wait for the Great Russia-Eurasia Union ad where leader Pavel Borodin sings with the pop duo Tatu. The three are in Germany recording the spot, Gazeta reported Monday.

Then there are the United Russia ads, shown Monday on Channel One: "Why pick a politician when we have a president?" an ordinary woman says on an ordinary street, with the party's bear logo and ballot position (No. 20) flashing in the upper right corner. The vox pop is followed by footage of grandiose Russian landscapes, as the national anthem swells in the background.

There are, however, few people tuning in to catch the ads, parties and channels alike complain. Nonetheless, the schedule was designed for dedicated policy watchers who can get their political fix from 8:30 to 9 a.m. and 6:20 to 7 p.m. on Channel One. After that, the baton passes to Rossia for an hour of debates, and then to TV Center for the final evening stretch from 8 to 9 p.m. This routine will continue for the remaining 18 weekdays until the elections.

Each station will show one hour of campaign programming a day for the 20 weekdays from Nov. 10 to Dec. 5.

So far, even the naked rear end is unlikely to capture popular interest in the way Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky did in 1995 when he threw a glass of orange juice in the face of his debate opponent, Nemtsov, then a young reformer.

The state-funded debates started Monday, but the first debate of the season was held in fact on Friday, on the "Svoboda Slova" program on NTV.

Nemtsov, People's Party leader Gennady Raikov, Yabloko head Grigory Yavlinsky and Homeland co-leader Dmitry Rogozin went head to head on the show, discussing United Russia's refusal to debate, the Yukos case, the results of 1990s privatizations, the obstacles to democracy and the possible coalition of rightist parties -- namely Yabloko and SPS.

Owned by Gazprom-Media, NTV is not technically a state channel, so participants were required to pay for the airtime, which ran about $26,000 for five minutes, according to NTV. As the elections near, airtime becomes increasingly expensive; 20 minutes on "Svoboda Slova" on Dec. 5 will cost $260,000.

Embittered by United Russia's refusal to debate, Nemtsov and fellow SPS leader Boris Nadezhdin on Monday proposed an amendment to the election law that would allow a court to bar a party from running for the Duma if it refuses to participate in debates.

The head of the Duma's self-regulation and organization committee, Oleg Kovalyov, who is a member of the centrist Unity faction, told journalists Tuesday that because the law would not be retroactive, the SPS initiative was pointless. "The election campaign ... is in full swing and making some law today to modify it is extremely unreasonable," he was quoted by Interfax as saying.