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'Donkey whipped' as Russia poll campaign starts


One candidate savagely whipped a donkey in a promotional video while two others exchanged angry words in a prime time live TV debate as Russia's presidential election campaign kicked off in raucous fashion.

There were no such excesses for the clear favourite in the race, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who spent the afternoon in a long and often dry discussion about Russia's future with political analysts.

With less than a month for the March 4 elections, Putin and his four challengers are now allowed to plaster the streets with election posters and seek to dazzle Russians with campaign videos.

"The little mangy donkey is a symbol of our country," said Liberal Democratic Party candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky in his video, shown sitting in a traditional Russian troika sledge drawn by a recalcitrant animal.

"When I become president, things will get moving again!" said the ultra-nationalist Zhirinovsky, laying into the unfortunate animal with several cracks of his whip as the sledge gradually got moving.

Putin's slogan is a much more staid "Together towards a great Russia" and he has controversially refused to take part in debates in which all the other candidates are due to cross swords.

Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov and billionaire tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov met in a cacophonous encounter in which any attempt to explain policy was lost underneath the din of the bad-tempered arguments.

"I have one question for Vladimir Putin. You have been in power for 12 years. Maybe it's enough. We will make our country such that it not only makes our own citizens proud but other countries stand in queues to visit and live in our country," said Prokhorov.

Putin's campiagn team were running videos under the slogan "Why I am voting for Vladimir Putin" featuring celebrity supporters including star conductor Valery Gergiev and actor Oleg Tabakov.

Putin himself however seemed to take every effort to stay above the fray by holding a largely abstract political discussion on Russia's future with analysts that was also televised at length on state television.

With the sole liberal candidate Grigory Yavlinsky already disqualified from the race, many commentors have dismissed the election campaign as a colourful irrelevance compared to the mass protests challenging Putin's rule.