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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tricks, Lies and Zyuganov's Head on a Bust

They're off.

Four days into the official State Duma election season, the first low blow has been thrown in a campaign predicted to be chock-full of dirty tricks, fake candidates, bribery, blackmail, misinformation, lies and insults.

In a village in the central Oryol region, someone has taken over the home of Gennady Zyuganov's father-in-law -- and turned it into a museum to the Communist Party leader.

Inside the purported museum, a mocking Channel One report on Sunday showed Zyuganov's head sitting on a decapitated bust of Vladimir Lenin.

An outraged Zyuganov called the museum piece "a dirty, disgusting work" and "a provocation."

Over the last decade, a different phrase has emerged for the vast menagerie of undemocratic and often illegal maneuverings that parties and candidates will resort to for power.

Black PR is negative campaigning taken to the nth degree.

"It's the woe of our country," said Sergei Loktionov, a spokesman for the liberal Yabloko party. "It plays on the lack of knowledge of our citizens, people who are not fondly inclined toward politicians. Those who use such methods help to destroy democracy."

Last month, one audit and consulting firm estimated that parties and single-mandate candidates would spend up to $1.9 billion on the campaign.

Yevgeny Mintusov, a founder of Nikkolo M, a leading PR consultancy working with dozens of candidates for this year's Duma election, estimated that parties and candidates would spend between 5 percent and 10 percent of their campaign budget on black PR.

The use of black PR has developed in sophistication over the years, but has its roots in fairly generic forms. Mintusov divides it into black and white PR: Black is based on lies; white on truth, or mainly true accusations, he said.

He declined to say whether his company has used or uses black PR on behalf of its clients, saying it was a question "you shouldn't ask" PR companies. He compared it to asking a modeling agency "if you can sleep with their models."

Mintusov confirmed that a lot of black PR is about getting lies about your opponent in print, on television or on the radio, blackening candidates' names through paid-for articles.

He also cited the unethical, but legal, tactic of running a twin -- a candidate with a similar or identical name on the ballot aimed at confusing voters into picking the wrong candidate.

If a definitive textbook on black PR were to be written, it would probably give prominence to how the media portrayed Zyuganov in the 1996 presidential elections, where the Communist leader was accused of plotting everything from civil war to banning modern music.

"It is very hard to make Zyuganov look even worse than he is, but they did it," said Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.

This time around, the Communists are just as unhappy with their coverage on the nationals, with Zyuganov being shown in a poor light, if at all -- in contrast to slavish coverage of United Russia politicians.

Oleg Kulikov, the head of the Communists' election campaign, said a deputy head of the presidential administration, Vladislav Surkov, meets with friendly journalists once a week to plant anti-Communist media reports.

A slightly subtler method is the planting of a dud story on a web site, which is then picked up by other, non-Internet media. One example, according to Yabloko's Loktionov, was a recent report on Channel One that the party, contrary to electoral law, was sponsored by foreign money, including from Soros' Open Society Institute. "It was complete rubbish," said Loktionov, who traced the story to a little-known web site, from where it was picked up by other sites before reaching national television. "But it worked in the course of one hour."

Promotions company boss Sergei Knyazev, who admits to having once used black PR on behalf of a St. Petersburg politician, said, "The correct way to run black PR is not to blacken the opponent, but to release not very positive information at exactly the right time."

To help the candidate, who was successfully elected to the City Duma, Knyazev organized a $5,000 prize cartoon contest of candidates that attracted hundreds of entries. Knyazev had specially hired cartoonists to superimpose unflattering caricatures of his client's opponents on the winning entries.

A simpler ploy is to print leaflets purporting to come from your opponent. In one classic black PR stunt, a Yabloko politician supposedly urged voters to vote for him or he would kill himself.

The worst dirty trick that Knyazev said he saw, but was not involved in, was a candidate who was forced to quit the race after his family had been falsely told that he was a bigamist with a second wife and children.

"The only thing they haven't accused us of is bestiality," said Liberal Democratic Party spokesman Pavel Velikanov.

Whether black PR makes a difference is another matter. Opinions are divided, but most commentators feel the voter is getting more skeptical.

"Happily the genre is dying, judging by successive election campaigns. People are starting to understand, so they don't pay attention," Loktionov said.

One analyst saw a different reason for the dying art of black PR: No one cares about voters anymore.

"There is less reason to spend money on black PR, than to use it bribing top bureaucrats and buying places on party lists," Kagarlitsky said, adding that black PR was being used this time around purely to hide vote fraud. "This year nothing really matters, it just depends on what Surkov or [President Vladimir] Putin thinks," Kagarlitsky said.