Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

Farce in Sochi

25th April 2009 16:29

And then there was one. A mayoral election in the southern Russian city of Sochi today caps one of the dirtiest campaigns in modern Russian history, undermining Kremlin claims of greater democratization.

The election is more than just another local ballot. Sochi is the venue for the 2014 winter Olympics and will receive billions of dollars in government money between now and then for the mother of all facelifts.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has given the project his personal imprimatur amid talk of turning the faded Soviet-era holiday resort into Russia’s third city after Moscow and St. Petersburg.

With so much at stake, the race to choose a new mayor has descended into a rigged and one-sided campaign, brazen even by Kremlin standards.

That despite warm words from President Dmitry Medvedev who described the vote as “a fully-fledged political battle” that would boost Russia’s frail democratic credentials.

In the beginning, there were 26 contenders, a mixture of big hitters, celebrities, and grey Soviet-era bureaucrats. They included a murder suspect, a porn star, a ballerina, a human rights activist who slept in his car, and an oligarch. Going into the final vote, just six candidates remain. The rest have either mysteriously revoked their own candidacies or been struck off the ballot on a technicality by the local election commission. 

The Kremlin-anointed candidate, a podgy career civil servant called Anatoly Pakhomov, has, it seems, a peculiar understanding of democracy. Nominated by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party, he refuses to debate his opponents and refuses to even reveal where his campaign headquarters are located. His aides decline to reveal his schedule making it impossible to meet him, and Mr. Pakhomov balks at being  interviewed by anyone bar the most slavish local journalist. Locals compare him to a ghost. Apart from staged meetings with handpicked voters that appear on loyal local TV stations, they say he’s invisible.

The authorities have also done their utmost to ensure Sochi is not gripped by election fever. There’s not one single campaign poster on its palm-lined streets and opposition candidates who have tried to change that have quickly had their posters ripped down. A spokesman for Mr. Pakhomov’s party claims people are tired of elections and that posters have a limited impact anyway. What’s the point of putting up posters, he says, when they have to be taken down in a few days. “It would just create rubbish.” Local TV and radio stations have also done their bit. They have point blank refused to run any paid campaign ads and instead covered the run-up according to the Kremlin’s playbook. A 20-minute film demolishing the character of the main anti-Kremlin opposition candidate, Boris Nemtsov, has been shown repeatedly. Mr. Nemtsov is a household name in Russia, co-chairman of the opposition Solidarity movement, and a charismatic and talented orator. In

the 1990s, he was a deputy Prime Minister and one of the country’s most successful regional governors. Sensing a threat to its own candidate, the authorities have gone into overdrive to discredit Mr. Nemtsov. Mr. Putin likened unnamed candidates to “scum,” and the head of the local police suggested Mr. Nemtsov’s supporters were provocateurs planning to cause trouble. A local journalist who dared film a short interview with him was punched in the face by two men late at night. Incredibly, local TV also showed a clip it claimed showed Mr. Nemtsov meeting Korean businessmen. According to the subtitles that accompanied the clip, the businessmen offer Mr. Nemtsov a bribe to move the Olympics from Sochi to a South Korean city. If the subtitles are to be believed, Mr. Nemtsov appears to entertain the offer. His aides say the dialogue was doctored and the whole thing a classic Kremlin provocation.  “This is Goebbels-like propaganda,” says Mr.

Nemtsov. “Putin who hates democracy is running the show.”

The Communist candidate, a sad-looking man called Yuri Dzagania, says he knows the Kremlin candidate will win. “It’s a farce we’re obliged to take part in,” he says. “At least it gives us a chance to propagate Communist ideas.” When he addressed a recent rally of supporters, a team of plain-clothes FSB security service employees photographed him and every speaker. He and Mr. Nemtsov say vote rigging is already underway. People who work in the state sector such as teachers, police officers, and doctors are being bussed to polling stations in working hours to cast their vote early. There’s enormous pressure to vote for the Kremlin candidate, many of them say.

The way the vote is being conducted appears to punch another hole in the idea that President Medvedev’s liberal rhetoric is anything more than just talk. His style has prompted talk of a thaw. But judging by this election, there’s still a lot of ice to melt.