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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Parties Draw for Free TV Spots

Itar-TassCommission Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov, center, with representatives of Channel One and the Union of Right Forces at the drawing for free airtime Tuesday.
At a lottery held by the Central Elections Commission on Tuesday, there were no ping-pong balls, only envelopes. And unlike last Friday's event, it was not ballot position at stake, but free television airtime for the 23 parties running for the State Duma.

Envelopes were handed out at random containing date and time assignments for appearances on state television and radio channels, and, by extension, match-ups for the televised debates.

Free election season airtime is provided by Channel One, Rossia and TV Center, as well as Radio Russia, Mayak and Voice of Russia.

Notably absent from the full debate roster, to be released later this week, will be United Russia, which on Monday announced it would not participate in the debates.

Yury Volkov, the head of United Russia's campaign committee, explained the party's decision to Interfax. "We consider it inexpedient and dangerous to spend time on advertising and populist speeches on the air," he said, adding that voters knew the "actors in this political carnival" well enough, and that the issues slated for debate had already been discussed to exhaustion.

Commission Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov on Monday expressed disappointment at United Russia's decision, calling it "not exactly logical" and "the wrong step," Interfax reported.

"They're scared of a real dialogue that millions of people could watch," Communist Party official Ivan Melnikov told NTV after the draw.

United Russia, whose leaders include a handful of cabinet ministers, is confident that it has no name recognition problem, but beyond the capital it is scrambling to win over voters.

Volkov said Tuesday the party would, however, take part in debates on regional television stations. "Our leaders, unlike many others, aren't afraid to go to the heart of the people and speak directly to them," he was quoted by Interfax as saying.

Of the 23 parties that will appear on the Dec. 7 ballot, 21 -- including United Russia -- participated in the draw for free airtime.

Parties have the right to a total of one hour of airtime on each network, spread over the 20 weekdays from Nov. 10 to Dec. 5. The stations have structured the bulk of that time through debates, but a small portion is set aside for campaign ads and individual speeches.

Though United Russia can't be bothered to argue policy points against other parties, the party's representative Sergei Kostenko told Interfax on Tuesday that it had no intention of refusing this unshared airtime.

Only the Peace and Unity party and Green party were barred from taking part in the draw, having yet to reimburse television stations for the airtime they were given during the last election season.

Rules meant to filter out uncommitted parties from getting undeserved access to the airwaves require that any party that wins less than 2 percent of the popular vote must pay back the airtime's commercial value, which could run to around $3 million.

Channel One plans to broadcast 30-minute debates twice a day, at 8.30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Debates on Rossia and TV Center will be shown live, in one hour blocks at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. respectively, timed so that none overlap.

A full, final schedule of who will debate whom and on what channel is to be printed in Rossiiskaya Gazeta by Nov. 10, when the debates begin.

The question of whether state-run channels intended to air the debates live or pre-recorded sparked an outcry last month from politicians who feared that the prospect of edited footage would further disillusion voters. Political analysts predicted that obedient editors would airbrush the performance of candidates from United Russia, a Kremlin-backed party.

In the end, only Channel One will show debates from tape, though it insists no editorial changes will be made, and as a guarantee of that, the station said it will give participants a recording of what was filmed before they walk out the door.

Debate slots were randomly assigned after United Russia's refusal to participate in the debates scrapped the pairings carefully drawn up by a council of experts affiliated with the commission, based on the requests for opponents that each party submitted.

A source who attended the drawing said the Communist Party, having lost the chance to go head-to-head with United Russia, its main rival and debating adversary, was also mulling withdrawing from the debates. Communist Party representatives were not available to comment late Tuesday.