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Russian Authorities Are Trying Really Hard to Boost Turnout in the Upcoming Election, Good Taste Be Damned

Russians protest against elections that they see as unfair. Photo by Evgeny Feldman for navalny.feldman.photo, CC-BY-NC

This year's electoral campaign is set to be the strangest in Russia’s recent history, all about convincing those Russians who aren't fans of President Vladimir Putin or who just aren't motivated voters to show up at the polls and cast their ballot, no matter the candidate, because doing so would lend legitimacy to what's considered a foregone conclusion: Putin's reelection. 

Russian authorities’ concern over turnout has reached almost feverish obsession with anonymous, homophobic propaganda videos and men’s magazines using sexualized imagery to complete their “civic responsibility” to websites like Russian airline Aeroflot urging their visitors to vote.

Putin is expected to win by such a colossal margin (as he’s already done three times since 2000) in the March 18 election that he not only barely, if at all, campaigns, but can’t even be bothered to be filmed for his own campaign video, which had to be stitched together from archival footageOr even appear in public in the last month before the election date, if only to quench the rumors of a terminal disease or a palace coup.

Putin failed to show up at his own nomination, never collected his candidate’s ID, refused to debate, all but disappeared from the TV screens. Am worried about the swearing in ceremony now.

For the remaining candidates, a single digit race would be an overstatement: Of eight names on the ballot, five look attractive enough to a grand total of 2 per cent of the Russian electorate, according to the latest polls. The two remaining contenders, who aren’t Vladimir Putin or political non-entities, will gladly accept 7 per cent as a major victory.

One, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia isn’t remotely liberal or democratic (in conventional terms, LDPR can be described as a far-right populist party), is running for president for the sixth time since 1991. His best result was 9.35 per cent in 2008, and he can’t hope to break his personal record this time, according to the most generous polls.

The other, Pavel Grudinin, a Communist Party candidate who isn’t a member of the party, is under constant, ferocious attack from state-owned and loyalist media, commentators and countless online bots and trolls for his supposed hypocrisy. Grudinin, the CEO of a successful agricultural business, is famously wealthy, probably beyond what his officially declared income shows.

With the biggest intrigue of this electoral cycle in Russia being Grudinin or Zhirinovsky coming second with 7 per cent (or whether the ultra-liberal Ksenia Sobchak, the only woman on the ballot, can break the 1 per cent barrier), it’s no surprise that Russians are disinterested.

So the focus isn’t one of the persons on the ballot, but the turnout itself. Reports in the media, based on leaks from the Kremlin, name “70/70” as the target — as in 70 per cent votes for Putin at 70 per cent turnout.

Officials on the ground are so anxious to meet the unrealistic expectations forced on them that some are jumping the gun, like the Tula elections committee which published turnout figures three weeks before the election day:

This corralling of voters to these “elections” is unprecedented. We have never seen such “political technologies” in Russia. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never liked the circus. I have no plans to give the kremlin [sic] the turnout they want. The Tula elections committee seems to have mistakenly published the results of elections which are yet to be held. You still need further arguments?

And then there's the reported cases of coercion, like students in Rostov-on-Don threatened with eviction from their dormitories if they fail to turn up at the polls. Or elderly local council workers having to canvass far-flung corners of the Moscow region with a barely working app on iPhones they were told to “borrow from their grandkids”.

‘…keep the turnout low and let stupidity and cowardice expose themselves’

But it’s these online campaigns that are causing the most backlash from their target audience, web-savvy and critically minded Russians Uncredited videos depicting them as sexually frustrated teenagers or unkempt, passive slobs are surfacing on social media.

The one below appeared in February 2018 showing a typical abstainee as tormented by homophobic nightmares:

Eugene Kazachkov, a screenwriter from Moscow, wrote on Facebook about another such video allegedly in the works:

Все уже насладились роликом, где “простой народ” пугают геями, пионерами и призывом в армию в 52 года, чтобы загнать на “выборы”. Теперь агитаторы готовятся обрабатывать гнилую интеллигенцию, либерастов и креаклов.

Один мой знакомый иностранец ищет актёрскую подработку, и вот его агент прислала ему предложение сняться за 10 тысяч рублей в ночь с 23 на 24 февраля в «социальном ролике» (см. скриншоты сценария). Он стал расспрашивать, кто заказчик и производитель этой “общественно важной рекламы”, но агент сказала, что они уже нашли другого актёра и перестала отвечать.

Какие выводы мы можем сделать из всего этого?

1. Не нужно сомневаться в важности явки на предстоящих “выборах” и лютой борьбы наверху за её повышение. Они агитируют не за конкретного кандидата (конкретный победит в любом случае), а за легитимность процедуры и результата.2. Деньги на эту агиткампанию разворовываются, потому что ролики придумывают не профессионалы, а хрен знает кто. Первое правило рекламы: не решай проблему, которой нет. “Покупайте наш шампунь, и у вас из жопы перестанет вылезать макака” – это смешной и броский ход. Все поржут, но шампунь не купят.

3. Они верят в пропаганду, которую сами выдумали, а реальность и здравый смысл их вообще не волнуют. Все креаклы знают, что хамон и пармезан исчезли не из-за санкций, а из-за антисанкций, которые ввёл основной кандидат, иностранцы тут ни при чём, митингов никто не боится, и с пустыми полками магазинов всё это могут связать только “восемьдесят шесть процентов”, но для них сняли другой ролик. Но раз эти “стратеги” утверждают, оплачивают и производят такие ролики, значит их представления о людях, об обществе, о нас с вами уже далеко за пределами адекватности. Они живут в мире говорящих фиолетовых грибов.

В общем, снижаем явку и продолжаем наблюдать, как глупость и страх сами себя разоблачают.

Everyone enjoyed that video where they are attempting to scare “a common Joe” into “voting” in these “elections” using gays, Young Pioneers [a Communist youth organization in the USSR] and being conscripted into the army at the age of 52. Now the same agitators are preparing to influence the rotten intelligentsia, liberals and the creative class.

A foreigner I know is looking for an acting job on the side. His agent found an offer to be filmed in a “public service advertisement” video for 10,000 rubles [about 180 US dollars] between February 23 and 24 (see attached screenshots of the script he was sent.) He pressed for further details, like who this ad had been commissioned by, but the agent told him they had already found another actor and went dark.

What conclusions can we draw from this?

1. There's no doubt about the importance they’re attaching to the turnout in these “elections” and the extreme lengths [the Russian authorities] are prepared to go to keep it as high as possible. They aren’t promoting a specific candidate (he’s winning in any case) but his legitimacy and the legitimacy of the procedure in general.

2. The money poured into this campaign is being squandered, because these campaign ads are cooked up by amateurs, not professionals. First rule of the ad business: Don’t fix what’s not broken. “Buy our shampoo and a macaque will stop popping out of your rear end” is an entertaining, catchy move. Everyone’s going to have a good laugh but won’t buy the shampoo.

3. They are falling for their own propaganda and completely ignoring reality and common sense. Every member of the “creative class” they’re targeting is well aware that Spanish ham and parmesan disappeared from the supermarket shelves as the result of Russia’s own counter-sanctions introduced by the main candidate, foreigners have nothing to do with this, no one is afraid of rallies, and the only people who are capable of connecting them with the empty shelves in their heads are the “86 per cent” [Putin’s approval rate] — but they are being targeted by another ad. But if these “strategists” are actually approving, paying for and producing such videos, that means that their concept of the people, of society, of us are too detached from sanity. They are living in a universe populated by talking purple fungi.

So let's keep the turnout low and let stupidity and cowardice expose themselves.

A screenshot of the alleged script of the video was attached to the post. It reads:

This screenshot purportedly depicts the script of a propaganda video promoting the Russian presidential elections. Screenshot by Runet Echo

Social advertisement — “The Seducer”

Scene 1.1-int. Food shop. Daytime.
Protagonist, Shop assistant, Foreigner.

(Protagonist is scanning the shop window, looking for something.)

ON SCREEN CAPTION: March 18, 2018

VOICE (on the radio): The country is voting in the presidential elections. They will define the future of our nation.

(PROTAGONIST approaches the counter and addresses the ASSISTANT.)

PROTAGONIST: Afternoon! Do you happen to have any French cheese left?

ASSISTANT (in a tired voice): No…

FOREIGNER (speaking from behind the PROTAGONIST in an accented voice): You can bring the cheese back…

(PROTAGONIST ignores the FOREIGNER and addresses the ASSISTANT again.)

PROTAGONIST (forlornly): Maybe Spanish or Portuguese ham?

ASSISTANT (annoyed): We don’t have either!

PROTAGONIST: Oh, those damned sanctions…

FOREIGNER (whispering in an accented voice from behind the PROTAGONIST to the right): They can be lifted, you know.

PROTAGONIST (finally acknowledging the FOREIGNER’S presence and turning to him): And how, I’m wondering?

FOREIGNER (in an accented voice): Just ignore the presidential elections and everything’s going to be fine.

(PROTAGONIST is pensive.)

Scene 2.2, Int. Food store.
Protagonist, Shop assistant, Foreigner.

ON-SCREEN CAPTION: A week later.

(PROTAGONIST enters the store, observes empty shelves. ASSISTANT is fidgeting around the counter with a bored look.)

VOICE (on the radio): The turnout at the presidential elections in Russia never reached 20 per cent, which led the Western countries to declare the result illegitimate. Rallies and strikes have gripped the nation.

(PROTAGONIST sees the FOREIGNER in the corner and approaches him.)

PROTAGONIST: Where did all the food go? Didn’t you promise me things were going to get better?

FOREIGNER (in English): Sorry, I don’t understand.

PROTAGONIST: What? It’s because of you that I never voted in these elections!

FOREIGNER: (in English): Can you help me? I’m looking for (heavily accented) Ploschad Revolutsii!

(PROTAGONIST stands paralyzed with sudden realization.)

OUTRO: Elections 2018.

VOICEOVER: March 18. Presidential elections in Russia. The fate of the country is in your hands.

‘Disgusting jokes oozing with sexual innuendo’

Another election campaign scandal involves MAXIM Russia, a popular men’s magazine. What makes it peculiar is that the editor-in-chief, Alexander Malenkov, is openly critical of the Russian government and has published many piercing satirical pieces about Russian politics.

In October 2017, a video posted on MAXIM’s YouTube channel used provocative sexual imagery to promote the “adult choice” of voting in the March 2018 elections.

MAXIM Russia and Malenkov came under further fire recently, when a set of stickers surfaced on Vkontakte, one of Russia’s most popular social network. These stickers, intended to be used as emojis in Vkontakte’s comments and its messenger service, employ suggestive images of young women to promote voting as a “civic responsibility.”

Select stickers in the image read: “I’m waiting for you in the polling booth!”, “Let’s do it together”, “You want to do it the adult way?”, “Can I already?”, and “Can you help me with my absentee ballot?”

Tweet: “Vkontakte unveiled a set of election-themed stickers, creepy as they could be. We really don’t think that disgusting jokes oozing with sexual innuendo are the best way to boost turnout.”

Not only did many users find these stickers crass and manipulative, it was later revealed that they were plagiarized from a non-political set of pin-up illustrations drawn by another artist, Valeria Fortuna, who accused MAXIM of intellectual theft. After back-and-forth arguments on various social media, MAXIM admitted that these stickers were indeed commissioned by the magazine. Vkontakte later removed them.

TJournal.ru, a Russian web and tech news site, also got Malenkov to admit that these stickers, as well as the YouTube video mentioned above and the Vkontakte community Только для взрослых (“For Adults Only”) dedicated to promoting the March 2018 elections, were part of a campaign commissioned by an ad agency. Malenov, however, refused to disclose the name of the agency, as well as the sum of the contract. 

The 2018 elections pose a unique challenge for the Russian authorities, and it shows in the anxiety they’re demonstrating: Any alleged vote rigging can’t be too obvious, but a low turnout would undermine Putin’s legitimacy as the president of all Russians, not just those who could be bothered to vote or were coerced by their employers.

It’s unclear if these awkward, unsophisticated measures will be effective at getting people to the polls or end up turning away even the most apolitical of voters. It’s no surprise that Alexey Navalny, who was barred from running for president, is calling for a boycott of these elections — and is meeting fierce backlash from authorities.

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