Photographing the Russian Election – as exciting as watching a Formula 1 car compete with a tractor
Covering Russia’s presidential election campaign in pictures has been about as exciting as watching a slick Formula 1 racer compete with a Soviet tractor and a pimped-up Lada.
That is, until within the space of a week, the three main candidates discovered their mutual love for guns.
But that was just a shot in the dark after which the run-up to the election returned to its uneventful predictability.
President Vladimir Putin’s chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev is expected to win the race for Russia’s top job, in a campaign that critics say resembles a coronation rather than an election. Often described as the ‘likely next president’, Medvedev enjoys full Kremlin backing and blanket media coverage as he is criss-crossing the country to inch his ratings beyond the 70 percent he already has to his name.
Medvedev also dominates the picture wires. His campaign management has tight control over coverage, keeping him away from public scrutiny (he will not take part in TV debates) and presenting him at carefully stage-managed events that often have the charm of a Soviet leader’s visit to a regional factory.
His personal photographer provides us with an incessant stream of images showing Medvedev visiting a maternity ward, speaking at an investment conference, inspecting a sheep farm, holding a child, meeting students, toasting officers, sitting by at state meetings and even conducting his own foreign trips to Serbia and Hungary – with the help of the state media Dmitry Medvedev’s image is being molded into that of the national leader he is expected to become. Given our role as news gatherers, we cannot help but become to some extent an accomplice in this project.
We have to rely on these images because access for foreign journalists is very restricted. With a few exceptions, one agency at a time is invited to tag along with Medvedev, forcing us to pool pictures, eliminating the competitive thrill that makes photographers tick.
Medvedev’s main challenger is Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov, though given the 10 percent he scored in a recent poll, he is no threat to Putin’s man.
The life-long party functionary is known for greeting many of his longtime supporters as well as some veteran journalists by name. Traveling with him can produce the kind of candid pictures we would like to see of Medvedev.
Yet standing in the shadow of Medvedev’s astronomic rating, Zyuganov’s support rallies, attended mostly by pensioners, are a long shot from the election spectacles we know from other countries.
Maverick nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, number three in the race, also has a reputation for courting journalists, but in a more hands-on manner than the unruffled Zyuganov. Reuters Moscow correspondent Guy Faulconbridge had the pleasure to indulge with him last Sunday in Russia favourite tipple: (http://blogs.reuters.com/russia/2008/02/26/vodka-and-guns-on-the-russian-election-trail/)
The fourth candidate, Andrei Bogdanov, is the leader of the tiny Democratic Party and used to handle public relations for President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. He is expected to score below 1 percent and mentioned by reporters mostly for the sake of completeness.
In the face of all this blandness the challenge has been to keep the story alive but there is such diversity here that there are always fascinating human angles on the election campaign other than the candidates themselves in this vast and intriguing country: