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Gays and the Russian Election

Did someone fake a press conference to make it appear that the urban intelligentsia's favorite for president was supported by gays?

Russia's newly-elected President Vladimir Putin didn't actually campaign for the job; the state-run media did that for him, and on March 23 showed a gay group rallying in support of one of his lesser rivals, Grigori Yavlinksy of the liberal Yabloko party. Putin's campaign denies having anything to do with the report, but analysts seem unanimous that it was designed to move homophobic voters to Putin and may even have been staged. Just how much that may have had to do with Putin's first-round win with more than 52% of the vote will never be known -- nor just where the gay vote actually went.

Putin, the former Prime Minister appointed early this year by resigning President Boris Yeltsin to finish the remainder of his term, refused to make promises or share plans or any kind of platform; when one magazine asked about his programs, he said simply, "I won't tell you." But he did provide plenty of photo ops and government-controlled media followed up on every one of them, disproportionate to the representation of other candidates. According to the European Institute for the Media (EIM), which was monitoring the campaign with partial funding from the European Union, television news coverage between March 2 and March 21 had devoted almost half the total time for all eleven candidates to generally favorable coverage of Putin -- 48%, compared to about 10% each for Communist Gennady Zyuganov, Yavlinsky and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Independent media reportedly were threatened with losing their loans at state banks if they failed to show Putin in a positive light. Putin himself remarked after his victory, "I want to point out that the Communists achieved [about 30% of the vote for Zyuganov] even though -- let us be direct and honest about this -- they did not have that many opportunities in the media, especially the electronic media." Four challengers appeared on a TV quiz show, eager for any airtime at all.

ORT is Russia's leading TV channel, and along with RTR is the only source of news for much of Russia; EIM criticized both as "biased in favor of the incumbent." ORT is 51% state-owned and reportedly controlled by Boris Berezovsky, one of the Kremlin "oligarchs" who backed Boris Yeltsin and Yeltsin's hand-picked successor Putin. Although this election was characterized by less mud-throwing than others, in the final week ORT hit Yavlinsky (who never polled as much as 10%) in an appeal to xenophobia, anti-Semitism and homophobia. Yavlinsky was also investigated for possible illegal campaigning at a military installation.

An ORT report in prime time showed a group of men at the "Blue Heart Club" holding a news conference in support of Yavlinsky, apparently something new for Russian TV. RTR was there as well, but the third and independent broadcaster NTV (which happens to be owned by a noted Jew who backs Yavlinsky) was not invited. ORT ended its report with a disclaimer that the media conference might be part of a disinformation campaign. NTV charged the whole thing was staged.

Putin campaign deputy head Kseniya Ponomaryova denied she had anything to do with the anti-Yavlinsky campaign and said, "ORT has shown that gays support Yavlinsky, and that there are grounds to consider that his campaign is financed by persons who do not have Russian citizenship. What can I do about it?"

Putin's campaign strategist Gleb Pavlovsky said on independent television the day of the election, "Many mysterious and silly things happen during the campaign. I know nothing about Mr. Yavlinsky's sexual orientation, and I know nothing about events that take place in the gay community. If it was staged, it did Putin nothing but harm."

Isvestia analyst Otto Latsis told the New York Times that whoever decided to use homophobia against Yavlinsky -- and he doubted it was Putin himself -- was "trying too hard."

On the other hand, Yavlinsky could well be a likely choice for a gay voter, an economist viewed as a Western-style democrat who values individual liberties and whose support is based among the urban intelligentsia. But that's a small group in the vast reaches of Russia; Yavlinsky barely outpolled "against all," the Russian version of "none of the above."

PlanetOut News Staff
Monday, March 27, 2000 / 10:50 PM

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