Russia’s most high-profile presidential contenders are staging media performances this week, in what political analysts are calling a warm-up for the campaign season before presidential elections next March.
On Thursday, opposition leader Alexei Navalny hosted Igor Girkin, or “Strelkov,” a former leader of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, in a live debate on his YouTube channel.
A day later, on Friday, President Vladimir Putin held a Q&A with students in Sochi, broadcast live on the Kremlin-sympathetic NTV channel.
The appearances are a sign that the campaigning season has already begun months before it will officially kick off in December.
“It is a politically hot summer in Moscow, despite the weather,” political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky told The Moscow Times. “I think it will inevitably culminate in a serious standoff.”
“We’re in a campaign period and an already hot one at that,” Yekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist, added. “There can be no summer vacations now. At least, the political class is not resting and not sleeping.”
One of the reasons for the early start, Pavlovsky suggested, is that both candidates have something to make up for.
Putin backed a controversial housing demolition scheme in Moscow (whose mayor, incidentally, also held a televized Q&A on the state-owned TV Tsentr on Thursday). And Navalny is struggling to expand his loyal, but small, support base among opposition-minded voters, Pavlovsky explained.
“Right now, both prominent front men are making efforts to seize control,” he says.
Battle of the Mediums
The performances attest to both candidates’ media savviness, media researcher Vasily Gatov told The Moscow Times. A live performance will be cited by media outlets for weeks, he says — particularly during the summer’s slow news cycle.
“A politician spends two to three hours at a town hall meeting,” Gatov says, “but there are enough quotes there for a month.”
Both Putin and Navalny are well-versed in media performances. Since 2001, the Russian president has held 15 Direct Line conferences. Every year, Russians are encouraged to send in their questions, which are then answered live on air.
Television is still the most influential platform in Russian political campaigns. It is how more than 86 percent of Russians get their news, according to a study conducted by the independent pollster Levada Center in 2016.