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Analysis & Opinion
15.04.09 Whipping Them Into Shape
By Roland Oliphant

Alexander Lebedev went first. Following an appeal by another candidate, the Sochi District Court on Monday found that his candidacy was illegal. On the same day, Andrei Bogdanov, another liberal candidate, stepped down. On Tuesday, the same court that ruled against Lebedev also barred the Just Russia candidate from the race. If the Sochi elections started out as a circus, it seems that the ring-master is now imposing some order.

The details are still somewhat hazy, but according to Lebedev’s spokesman Artyom Artyomov, the move came after another candidate, Vladimir Trukhanovsky, complained that Lebedev had not accounted for three “illegal” money transfers in his initial financial declaration. Artomyov said those transfers consisted of just 500 rubles from teenagers (it was their age that made the transfer illegal – donations from minors are forbidden under the Russian law), and that the money was returned “as soon as we knew about it.”

He also called the judge’s decision to kick Lebedev off the ballot “illegal,” and claimed that both the prosecution and the electoral commission were against it. “We transferred this money back as soon as we knew about it,” he said, “and of course, we will appeal.”

The Sochi mayoral elections, to be held on April 26, have attracted one of the most diverse ranges of candidates seen in any Russian election in recent years. Apart from Lebedev, the candidates include United Russia’s official candidate, acting Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov, and Boris Nemtsov, a leading liberal opposition figure. The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) briefly fielded Andrei Lugovoi, the suspected killer of Alexander Litvinenko, before withdrawing him on the grounds that he was more useful in the State Duma. Other candidates included a ballerina, a soft porn star, an arm wrestler, and the Communist Party candidate Yury Dzagania (a local who was so disappointingly sensible a choice that most reports on the race initially failed to mention him, though he is tipped by some to come second).

The rush to Sochi is partly because the stakes are high – the winner will host the 2014 Olympics and have considerable say over how the vast sums allocated for the games will be spent. But analysts have also suggested that it may be because in Sochi, candidates can register for the ballot simply by paying a “candidate’s fee,” rather than gathering signatures. In the past the requirement for signatures have been used to disqualify opposition candidates for Presidential and Duma elections (Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister who was running on a liberal opposition platform, was disqualified from the presidential elections in 2008 after the Central Elections Committee declared that more than 13 percent of the two million signatures he had laboriously gathered were “invalid”). Lebedev was one of the candidates in Sochi who had opted to pay the fee, rather than gather signatures.

Still, the move does not come as a surprise. Speaking shortly after Lebedev first announced his candidacy in March, Nikolai Petrov, a domestic affairs watcher at the Moscow Carnegie center, cautioned that despite the registration fee, “there are still plenty of ways to kick someone off the ballot. You can always find some excuse.”

That excuse seems to have been found, and it is being applied ruthlessly. On Tuesday, the same court ruled that Just Russia’s candidate, Viktor Kurpitko, should also be removed from the ballot - also for failing to fill out his registration documents correctly.

Both Just Russia and Artyomov have described Trukhanovsky as a spoiler (or, as they put it, “technical”) candidate who has been entered the race to eliminate the rivals to Pakhomov. “He is there only to screw things up for the other candidates,” said Artomyov. Opacity about who he is or why he is standing – he is described universally only as a “Krasnodar businessman” – only add to that suspicion. But if he is pawn of the powers that be, then it seems to signal that the authorities have changed tactics.

Lebedev and Kurpitko are not the only ones to be eliminated from the race. Anastasia Volochkova, a ballerina and socialite, was disqualified two weeks ago on a similar technicality - forgetting to put her date of birth on the bank deposit slip for her election entry fee. And Andrei Bogdanov, a former liberal opposition figure who now heads the “Kremlin friendly” Democratic Party of Russia, stepped down of his own accord on Monday.

“At first the authorities – probably the local authorities - attempted to make this election a farce, a circus, in order to discredit the opposition. So you had people registering like Volochkova, and Yelena Bekova, who has been described as a porn star. But then this idea encountered some resistance – at the federal level, not the regional level - and the election took on a somewhat more thoughtful character. People like Volochkova and Bekova quit or forced out, and they managed to find a more or less respectable reason to do so. As for Bogdanov, neither his decision to stand nor his withdrawal could have happened without consultation with the authorities,” said the political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin.

Oreshkin believes Bogdanov was originally invited to stand as a counterweight to Nemtsov. But his exit from the race is actually likely to consolidate the liberal vote in Nemtsov’s favor. If Lededev, another liberal favorite, fails to overturn the court’s decision (and with elections scheduled for April 26, he has less than two weeks to do so), the election could become a straight fight between Nemtsov and Pakhomov – and, lest we forget him, the communist Dzagania.

“That could definitely happen,” said Oreshkin. “We’ve now just nine people in the race. But the greatest chance obviously goes to Pakhmonov – he can call on the administrative resource to support him, the media resources, and he is the incumbent.”

Lebedev has vowed that he will appeal and that the campaign will go on, and his team seems convinced that he is headed for victory. Asked about Lebedev’s chances, Artyomov bullishly declared that “if he is not disqualified, without question he will win. He is very popular in Sochi.”

Polling data is contradictory, however. Data from pollsters close to United Russia suggests the results will break down in a familiar pattern, with Pakhomov taking over fifty percent, followed at a considerable distance by the communists and Nemtsov. But Nemtsov’s campaign says he could take 20 percent of the vote. VTsIOM, a state-run pollster, says it will conduct a poll this weekend and publish its figures Tuesday.

It is not clear if the authorities will continue their crackdown over the next week and half. In an interview with Novaya Gazeta published Wednesday, President Dmitry Medvedev denied any knowledge of how or why Lebedev had been ejected from the race, and praised the process. “In any event, what is happening in Sochi is a proper political fight,” he told the paper. It certainly started that way. But it may not finish like that.
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