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Analysis & Opinion
17.03.09 Elections: An Olympic Sport
By Roland Oliphant

Two very different cities, Murmansk in the frozen north, and Sochi, the Black Sea spa town known as the “southern capital” of Russia, have become the focus of different but not unrelated political storms. United Russia unexpectedly lost Murmansk. And the election for the new mayor of Sochi, the host of the 2014 Olympic Games, is attracting an increasingly colorful range of candidates.

United Russia, the party of power, must be a little dazed this week. First it lost a mayoral election in Murmansk. Then, in a flurry of activity, a number of big name, colorful figures declared their candidacy for the upcoming Sochi municipal election, to be held on April 26.

United Russia is not used to losing elections. At the March 1 regional polls (of which Monday’s vote in Murmansk was a second round, after neither of the leading candidates won the 50 percent of votes needed for a victory), the ruling party retained almost all of its mayoral seats, and apart from one or two upsets (the Communists took over the municipal assembly in Tver), generally increased their share of the vote.

So Murmansk has come as a shock. Sergei Subbotin, the deputy regional governor standing as an independent, defeated the incumbent United Russia member Mikhail Savchenko in all but one voting district. It is all the more surprising because in the first round Savchenko was in the lead, with 31 percent of votes to Subbotin’s 24 percent.

This has prompted the unusual spectacle of United Russia complaining about the “abuse of the administrative resource” – an accusation more commonly leveled at it by its opponents. The complaints, according to the Kommersant daily, revolve around the regional governor’s public endorsement of Subbotin on a local television channel. That has caused particular ire, because Governor Yuri Yevdokimov is himself a United Russia member.

The most likely explanation is that Yevdokimov, who has dominated the Murmansk Region for years, feared Savchenko’s gubernatorial ambitions. The outcome itself is probably not much of a problem for the Kremlin: Subbotin describes himself as a “Putin supporter,” and says he is ready to cooperate with United Russia.

Yevdokimov’s decision to publically oppose the will of the party is. “There was an open clash between the United Russia leadership on one side and the governor on the other,” said Nikolai Petrov, a commentator on Russian regional politics at the Moscow Carnegie Center. “That is a very important precedent. The governor not only ignored orders coming from Moscow, but he went public in doing this.”

Tensions between the federal, regional and municipal levels of power are also in play at the southern end of the country, in Sochi, which is expecting elections on April 26. The Krasnodar region, like Murmansk, is home to a strong governor, Alexander Tkachyov, who certainly has an interest in putting his own man into the post of Sochi mayor.

Unlike the Murmansk election, this one is high profile from the start. Sochi is the summer residence of the Russian president, earning it the “Southern Capital” title, and it is also to be the host of the 2014 winter Olympics. The mayor elected for a five-year term next month will not only be opening the games, but will also have considerable say over one of Russia’s most ambitious building projects.

But the office of the mayor of Sochi is not necessarily a blessed one. The preparations are behind schedule, money is shorter than expected, thanks to the economic crisis, and the planners have failed to acquire all the land they need to build the planned facilities. “They are offering a very low price, while market rates for property in Sochi have skyrocketed,” said Petrov. “It is not actually a very comfortable position.”

That hasn’t stopped a host of politicians lining up for this poisoned chalice. First into the ring was Boris Nemtsov, co-chair with Gary Kasparov of the Solidarity opposition movement. Nemtsov is young, good looking and not universally reviled. He also has executive experience – he served as governor of the Nizhny Novgorod Region between 1991 and 1997, and was a popular deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin until being brought low by the 1998 default. His candidacy has been cautiously welcomed by some commentators as a sign of a new liberalism, but that may be premature. One reason he may have chosen to stand in Sochi is that it is one of few cities where a candidate can opt to pay a fee for the right to stand, rather than gather a set number of signatures, a requirement that has been used in the past to deny opposition candidates the right to partake in elections. And there is still plenty of time for the authorities to find some other excuse to stop him from standing.

Next up was Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Flying Circus, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. In true LDPR style, their chosen candidate is none other than Andrei “the tea pot” Lugovoi, the man who British prosecutors say slipped Polonium 210 into Alexander Litvinenko’s tea in 2006.

Lugovoi’s candidacy is yet to be confirmed, but Igor Ledebev, the leader of the LDPR’s faction in the State Duma, was quoted last week as saying that he “is our party’s preferred candidate.” Throwing a controversial figure into the fight is typical of the LDPR, and may simply be a headline grabbing tactic. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPR leader, put Lugovoi on the party list for the Duma elections after he was accused of murdering Litvinenko. But Petrov suspects that this time they may have been put up to it by the Kremlin after Nemtsov announced his candidacy, in a bid to make the whole election look like a pantomime and deprive other candidates of credibility. “The very presence of Lugovoi makes the image of Nemtsov, and any other outside candidates participating in this race a little bit marginal; like it is not serious,” said Petrov.

The prospect of looking silly competing against a man whose only qualification for office is being accused of murder did not put off another surprise contender. Billionaire anglophile, aspiring media tycoon and master of the urbane understatement Alexander Lebedev has also thrown his hat in the ring.

His motives are anyone’s guess. He has dabbled in politics before, attempting to establish a social democratic party with his friend Mikhail Gorbachev and running against Yuri Luzhkov for Mayor of Moscow in 2003. But in a recent interview to the Guardian he said he was “not a politician.”

Against this line up of big names stands Anatoly Pakhomov, who has been acting mayor since his predecessor stepped down for “health reasons” last October. Rumor has it that he will probably be United Russia’s candidate, and despite the upset in Murmansk this week, that means he will probably win. But not because United Russia is necessarily popular. “The thing with mayoral elections is that United Russia tends to field whoever is the strongest local candidate,” said Petrov. “So it is not like bringing a great new horse to the race track and seeing it win. It is more like backing the firm favorite.”

And that may be the deciding factor. Few of these headline grabbing candidates have much of a local base. Although Nemtsov was born in Sochi in 1959, and says that 400 people from the city signed a petition for him to stand, he spent most of his life and political career in Nizhny Novgorod. Lugovoi has no connection to the place, and neither has Lebedev.

But the field is still open. The closing date for candidacies is March 26, and there are other candidates, including a communist and the president of the Russian Arm Wrestling Federation. Whichever way it does go in Sochi, April promises to be a colorful month.
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