Russia uses viral videos to counter election boycott campaign | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 20.02.2018
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Russia uses viral videos to counter election boycott campaign

Russia is hoping to boost voter turnout in its upcoming presidential election through a series of humorous videos. The campaign appears to be an attempt to counter opposition leader Alexei Navalny's calls for a boycott.

The shot opens with a Russian couple about to go to bed. "I set the alarm clock for nine," the wife says. "Great, now turn it back off. Tomorrow is Sunday," the husband responds. "We have a big day, we have to go vote," she says, undeterred. "She wants to go vote. As if it won't happen without her," The man replies mockingly. He then rolls over and begins to snore as he falls into a deep sleep — one that quickly turns into a specifically Russian nightmare.

First, the doorbell rings. When the drowsy husband, played by a well-known Russian actor, opens it, he is confronted by an army officer who tells him to report for duty. "But I'm 52," the man objects. He is shocked to hear the officer tell him that the new president has raised the age limit for conscription to 60. The officer is accompanied by a black man, a reference to the idea that immigrants will supposedly serve in the Russian armed forces.

Turning back to the hallway, the man is confronted by his son, who asks him for a million rubles for "school security." Dumbfounded, the man then walks over to the kitchen, where he finds an overly dramatic gay man sitting at the kitchen table, filing his nails and eating a banana. Astonished, the man turns to his wife, who explains that a new law requires families to take in gays who cannot find partners. And if all that were not bad enough, the door to the bathroom is locked.

Read more: Who are Vladimir Putin's election challengers ?

The man eventually wakes up screaming. Shaking his wife, he says: "Get up! Otherwise it might be too late!"

Voter turnout video in Russia (Youtube/A. Amosov)

The video has been criticized for its blatant homophobia

Concerns about voter turnout

The three-minute video has become an internet sensation in Russia. It has been praised for its creativity and condemned for its crude homophobia. It remains unclear just who commissioned it. And though it may look like intentionally politically incorrect slapstick, the message behind the clip is quite serious: vote! It seems that there is a vested interest among Russian authorities in ensuring a high voter turnout for the upcoming presidential election on March 18.

Read more: In Russia's election, words count more than action

That concern has historical precedent. Voter turnout dropped considerably during the country's 2016 parliamentary elections when only 46 percent of Russians cast ballots. Turnout was especially low in Moscow. Only 35 percent of residents in the Russian capital went to the polls. Since the presidential election appears to be a foregone conclusion — a victory by incumbent Vladimir Putin is considered a virtual certainty — many Russians may opt to stay home. Thus the calculation would seem to point to an effort to assure not only victory but a resounding one at that.

Navalny's call for a boycott

Moreover, Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny has called for a boycott of the election. The popular 41-year-old anti-corruption activist had wanted to run himself but was ultimately barred from standing for office. Navalny was convicted of financial crimes in a controversial court case and served time on probation. He says that the entire affair was politically motivated. Russia's Justice Department denies the accusation.

Read more: Alexei Navalny says 'there is no pro-Putin majority' in Russia

An overwhelming number of Navalny's supporters are young Russians. Not only do they follow him on social media, they have also joined him in protests. Large numbers of students and young people took to the streets in demonstrations across the country last year.

Russian Putin campaign poster (picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Sadulayev)

The Kremlin is eager to avoid low voter turnout in Russia's March 18 presidential election

Targeting young Russians

And it is Russia's young people that the latest online campaign is targeting in an attempt to increase their presence at the polls. Normally, young Russians — like young citizens in other countries — don't vote in large numbers.

Another video features a pregnant young woman racing through the city in a wild taxi ride. But she isn't rushing to the delivery room, instead her ride ends at the polling station. Yet another video shows a young couple kissing passionately. Before things go further, the girl asks the boy if he is of age. "Sure, I'm grown up," he answers. But when the young woman learns that her new acquaintance has not yet voted, she turns away in disappointment, saying: "You aren't grown up at all." The video has been viewed more than 700,000 times since being uploaded to YouTube on February 14. It was produced by ROSVIDEO film studios, whose clients include majority state-owned companies like Gazprom, as well as a number of Russian government ministries.

"The Kremlin wants to motivate people to get out and vote. Not because it fears a defeat but because it fears that low voter turnout would unmask of the myth of Putin's broad support across the country," said Russian publisher Konstantin Eggert. First, the Kremlin shut out all political challengers, he explained, now its energy is being focused on driving people to vote for Putin by playing on their fears.

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