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The Kremlin has launched a new pre-election campaign that consists of a series of videos featuring various celebrities and cultural icons explaining why they plan to vote for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the upcoming presidential contest. The series has already caused a scandal, and the opposition’s own video campaign and host of recognizable figures seem to pose a threat to the Kremlin’s new project. Yet experts argue that despite either side’s PR efforts, public opinion will remain mostly unchanged.
Posted on YouTube under the username “vote4putin,” the series of campaign ads – there are now nearly 40 of them – feature stars from across the gamut of notoriety, from National Hockey League star Ilya Kovalchuk and popular Russian rapper Timati, to crooner Stas Mikhailov and noted actor Armen Dzhigarkhanyan. Produced and sponsored by Putin’s 2012 presidential campaign, the ads are mostly sleek and adorned with a single tagline: “Why I’m voting for Putin.”
Besides the celebrities’ open support for Putin in the upcoming elections, several other themes unite their arguments. Among them is praise for Putin’s returning of Russia onto the world stage (“In America, everyone talks about it – Russia is now respected,” Kovalchuk said) and, strangely, fears of impending revolution (“I don’t want people throwing around Molotov cocktails and for tanks to roll into my town,” Timati noted.). Others, such as Mikhailov, opt for the time-tested “stability” line: “I want my kids to live in peace, stability in society, and for people to feel protected – that’s what I need.”
Yet the affair blew up in the Kremlin’s face on February 15, when media reports surfaced claiming that actress and children’s philanthropist Chulpan Khamatova was forced into appearing in one of the campaign’s videos. The founder of the Give Life Foundation, a charity that helps cancer-stricken children, Khamatova appeared jittery and nearly in tears in her video, while noting that Putin has attended to the needs of the fund and its doctors. “All the promises made by Vladimir Putin to the Give Life Foundation,” she said, visibly flustered, “have been fulfilled.” Anonymous sources told Gazeta.ru that Khamatova had been threatened with cuts in funding for the organization and its associated center for pediatric hematology.
But while analysts and bloggers traded opinions on the Khamatova affair in a frenzy of online activity, the general idea behind the video campaign, meanwhile, perhaps reveals the Kremlin’s latest tactic for attracting the pro-Putin votes it desperately needs on March 4. As the opposition movement grinds on, it seems to collect ever more new faces along the way. Including such recognizable commodities as famous crime novelist Boris Akunin, celebrated writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya, news reporter Leonid Parfyonov and perestroika rocker Yuri Shevchuk, among others, it is a movement that blends perhaps the most important faces of the intelligentsia.
Indeed, the civil society group Citizen Observer, set up to monitor the presidential vote across major Russian cities, released its own well-produced and savvy video recently, in which a slew of notables – including Ksenia Sobchak, Parfyonov and new media journalist Tikhon Dziadko – explained why they chose to be election monitors. It joins the ranks of anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny’s own monitoring project, RosVybory, which has also released a series of videos featuring rock star Andrei Makarevich and music critic Artemy Troitsky pushing viewers to sign up as observers.
But that, experts said, is just the thing: while recognizable to big-city elites and the educated middle class, such pop culture figures rarely resonate among the older population. And vice versa, according to analyst Pavel Salin, who argues that each video series with its “leaders of public opinion” – whether pro-Kremlin or opposition-minded – plays to its own crowd with little crossover. “Every such leader has his or her own audiences – those that support them and those that don’t,” he said. “Look at [veteran film director and Putin supporter] Nikita Mikhalkov: the patriotic faction of the population supports him tremendously, while the liberals don’t accept him at all – they find him repulsive.”
Others similarly noted that, by and large, the electorate made up its mind well in advance. Pointing out that only about 15 percent of voters were undecided at the end of January, Levada Center researcher Oleg Savelyev said the true shifts in opinion will only come as a result of “extraordinary circumstances:” “It would take some enormous natural or technological disaster, or probably an unfavorable action by the government akin to the Bloody Sunday of 1905,” he said. “But then again, no one expected a revolution of massive proportions then, either.”
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