Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

This Country Is No Place for Discussion

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Vyacheslav Volodin, United Russia presidium secretary and State Duma deputy speaker, said recently that election campaign debates were nothing but "squabbles." This is apparently why United Russia refused to participate in the debates. As Volodin put it, the party does not want to come down to the level of other parties that only spout populist slogans during such debates. Volodin and his fellow party members, including State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov in particular, confirm that for them, the goal of the election campaign will be to "explain the fundamental provisions" of Putin's Plan, which constitutes United Russia's entire campaign slogan.

Volodin's description of public debates is similar to Gryzlov's off-hand remark that "the Duma is no place for discussions." Both statements, I am sure, were sincere, and they express quite clearly and concisely the contemptuous attitude toward politics held by the representatives of the new establishment -- politicians who are not so much elected by the people as they are appointed to their posts from above.

These people are completely isolated from the daily lives of their electorate. With rare exceptions, most politicians are unable to engage in public debate. They cannot answer uncomfortable questions without having prior preparation, nor are they fit to participate in the rough, competitive environment of politics. Moreover, as a rule, they are incapable of speaking in a language that ordinary people can understand.

After rejecting any role in the televised debates, United Russia explained that the party intended to use their allotted time to air promotional spots to explain Putin's plan. It is obvious that the spots will be all image and promotion and little substance. United Russia will rely heavily on emotions while offering few details of the party's program. This will only add to the campaign's superficiality.

With President Vladimir Putin's decision to head United Russia's federal ticket, the public loses out on any opportunity to discuss the different possible solutions to actual problems facing Russia. The public is deprived of being able to participate in an elementary exchange of ideas that focus on different approaches to the country's development. The whole Duma election campaign has turned into nothing but a referendum on supporting a single individual -- or more accurately, an expression of general approval for him, because Putin has yet to announce what post he will occupy after leaving the presidency.

From the historical perspective, Western democracies adopted the practice of holding pre-election debates relatively recently. And although the first such debate was most likely that between the candidates for the 1858 U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, political debates were not widespread prior to the era of mass communication, nor did they significantly influence the outcome of elections.

The first televised debate in the United States was held in 1960 between presidential hopefuls Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. It is generally held that Nixon's physical appearance during the first debate hurt his image and that despite making a stronger showing during subsequent debates, he eventually lost the election in part due to that initial setback.

After that, U.S. presidential candidates learned their lesson from Nixon's defeat and refused to participate in televised debates until they resumed again in 1976 between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. But now debates have become the norm in all democratic countries and have taken on such importance that it is hard to imagine a candidate winning an election without first winning a debate. And this year, debates for Poland's parliamentary seats and for the presidency in France gained worldwide attention for clearly determining the outcomes of those elections.

Now the United States has taken another step toward the popularization of politics by holding a debate between Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the web site YouTube, for which Internet users sent in questions to both candidates.

The majority of Russian voters, however, do not see the necessity for this form of pre-election contest. For example, prior to the presidential election of 2004, almost 90 percent of those polled said that such debates play no role in how they would vote.

And it is worth remembering that neither the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, nor Putin ever participated in a televised debate against their opponents. United Russia also turned down debates in the 2003 State Duma election campaign.

The television companies have taken a similar position in relation to the first-ever televised debates in Russian history by scheduling them for time slots that could hardly be considered prime time. Channel One offered the Central Elections Commission and the 10 parties willing to participate in the debates the 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. slot. After the commission complained, the debate was moved to the more popular 7:05 a.m. slot, when many people watch television before leaving for work. Rossia television chose to air the debates from 10:50 p.m. to 11:20 p.m.

Another half hour of free airtime will be disbursed in segments from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. for various party advertising spots and prerecorded addresses by party leaders. TV Center will air those clips from 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. and the debates from 5:40 p.m. to 6:10 p.m. All of the stations justified their choice of time slots with the explanation that "very few viewers watch political debates."

That conviction is supported by the results of a ratings survey conducted by TNS Gallup Media during the 2003 State Duma elections campaign. At that time, just 13 percent to 17 percent of people 18 or older watched the debates on Channel One and Rossia. That was 10 percentage points fewer than typically watched the regularly scheduled evening shows. And really, who wants to watch the chatter of politicians from marginal, relatively unknown political parties?

Meanwhile, the "party of power's" campaign tactic of open disdain for the methods all developed countries employ in public politics, as evidenced in part by United Russia's refusal to participate in the debates, is, from the party's point of view, a rational approach, given that the competition was long ago destroyed. The little opposition that still exists includes a few, virtually unknown figures whom many Russians consider to be clowns.

After all, one of the cardinal rules of political campaigns is not to agree to a debate with an opponent whose ratings are significantly lower than your own. In a best case scenario, the leader can only maintain his lead, but it is possible that the political David would gain points for having stood his own against the party of Goliath.

In any other country claiming to hold democratic elections, a political party --even with ratings significantly higher than its nearest competitors -- would never be able to so openly avoid facing difficult and uncomfortable questions from its opponents. That would be considered absolutely unacceptable.

But it appears that in Russia, the time has not arrived for competitive, adversarial politics. Politicians -- and sadly enough, voters -- do not understand the fundamental importance of or need for the "competition of ideas."

Georgy Bovt is a political analyst and hosts a radio program on City FM.