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Russia local elections seen extending Putin's power in regions

Russian President Vladimir Putin walks after a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow October 10, 2012. REUTERS/Kirril Kudryavtsev/Pool

VOSKRESENSK, Russia: Voskresensk, a Soviet-era industrial town of billowing smokestacks famous for turning out top ice hockey players, is an unlikely electoral battleground for President Vladimir Putin and his ruling United Russia party.

But the town, not far from Moscow, will hold a local election this Sunday along with thousands of others in the first real test of Putin's power in the regions since giant protests against his rule convulsed Moscow this year and last.

The contest will see five of Russia's 83 powerful regional governors elected for the first time in eight years though a "filter" system will ensure the Kremlin still has a big say.

Putin, who returned to the presidency in May, abolished elections for governors in 2004, but then President Dmitry Medvedev, now prime minister, restored them after the first big anti-Kremlin protest shook the country in December.

The rules may have changed but the opposition says the results in more than 4,600 elections are likely to be the same as in the past with pro-Putin candidates cementing the Kremlin's increasingly tight grip over the regions. That is something that Putin, who is famous for his vertical top-down system of power, has pursued hard since he first became president in 2000.

"We're like children, sitting here discussing elections when in fact the game is over," said Gennady Yegorov, one of six would-be mayoral opponents in Voskresensk struck off the ballot on procedural grounds.

Sitting in a basement office just off the town's Lenin Square where a bright screen next to a statue of Vladimir Lenin displays ads for the pro-Putin candidate, Yegorov, 52, is on a hunger strike to protest against his predicament.

He says the race had already been decided and that Putin's man is certain to win. Despite the fast and a yellowish bruise he received in an unexplained beating on the street 10 days before the election, his face is animated.

"Everything is being prepared to make the way for the one and only candidate," Yegorov said of Alexander Kvardakov, the Kremlin's preferred candidate, who like Putin himself used to work for the country's FSB security service, the successor organisation to the Soviet-era KGB.

Despite the protests against Putin, the biggest during his nearly 13-year rule, the vote is likely to show how firm Putin's grip on the world's largest country remains.

"It will be very difficult for the opposition as the levers of authority are switched on at full power," said veteran human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 85. "There will be no noticeable change. This is nothing but a game in an authoritarian state, there is no question about free elections."

The demonstrations were sparked by suspicions of fraud in favour of Putin's United Russia party in a parliamentary election last December and exposed discontent with Putin among many in the middle class in Moscow and a few other big cities.

But the protest movement made few inroads into the provinces where living standards are generally much lower.

Perched on the Moscow river, Voskresensk resembles tens of thousands of other Soviet-era towns up and down Russia. Packed with rows of drab apartment blocks, its skyline is dominated by chimneys belching out smoke and its factories churn out fertiliser, cement, and chemicals.

Kremlin opponents and analysts say Voskresensk is an example of how the authorities are trying to forestall accusations of flagrant fraud by removing threats before the polls even open.

Yegorov, of the opposition Just Russia party, says he was such a threat and says he was robbed of victory in a previous vote. Analysts said he was favourite to win Sunday's contest.

He said he was removed from the race because his campaign fliers featured a photograph of the city for which he had no copyright.

However, the head of the Voskresensk electoral commission said Yegorov's 15-year-old conviction for robbery and extortion was also a factor. Yegorov said the charges were groundless and that he had received a suspended sentence.

Another candidate, Sergei Alexeyev, says he too was kept off the ballot. In his case, he had improperly entered the year 2012 on documents he had filed to the local election commission. It was printed when it should have been handwritten.

"The ruling party has now learned to win with the use of softer measures than falsifications," said Roman Udot, project coordinator at Western-funded election monitoring group Golos.

"The tactic of dismissing candidates, not allowing them into the race, helps them clear the field in advance and then ... on election day itself everything looks more or less fine."

The removal of six candidates rankles with some voters.

"All in all it's a complete fake of an election," said Yelena Dyachkova, who sells sweets at a stall in a shopping mall in Voskresensk. "I am not sure who to vote for now that they have dismissed the candidate I wanted to back: Yegorov."

Voskresensk's story is being repeated elsewhere.

In the Ryazan region, beyond Voskresensk on the road from Moscow, a candidate who looked set to challenge the governor abruptly withdrew from the race last month, reportedly in exchange for a promise of a parliamentary seat.

In the Bryansk region, the election was nearly scrapped after a court struck the governor off the ballot and two of the other three candidates withdrew, sparking speculation they were rewarded for doing so to prevent a Communist from winning.

Such clumsy choreography may backfire, but analysts say Kremlin-backed candidates will have no trouble in the other three regions electing governors - Amur, Belgorod and Novgorod.

Few of the leaders of the street protests are seeking election. An exception is Yevgeniya Chirikova who is running for mayor in the Moscow suburb of Khimki but a poll published on Oct. 3 said she would get 11 percent, far behind the acting mayor backed by United Russia.

If she were to win, the authorities could use the state's purse strings to make it hard for her to govern. The same goes for any Kremlin foe coming to power in a city, town or region.

"The economic hierarchy is a very strong lever to keep mayors and governors in line," said Leonid Volkov, an opposition activist and city council member in Yekaterinburg in the Urals.

"You win and then they force you to ... play by their rules, or jail you - or you become a living example of an ineffective and bad mayor," he said.

 

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