Russians vote in regional elections on Sunday from the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad to the Pacific coast, but with the focus firmly on the heated battle for ballots in a small Moscow satellite city.
The nationwide polls are the most important in Russia since Vladimir Putin was elected to a third presidential term in March and come less than a year after mass protests broke out in the wake of last December’s disputed parliamentary vote.
Independent Moscow-based vote monitor Golos has accused the authorities of attempting to manipulate the elections to ensure victory for candidates backed by the ruling United Russia party, headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Russia’s election chief, Vladimir Churov, asked vote observers this week not to be too enthusiastic in their monitoring of the polls.
“Not all election officials are used to being filmed” he said. “Unlike me, they don’t all have nerves of steel.”
Voters go to polling stations in 77 of Russia’s 83 regions on Sunday, but attention has been centered firmly on mayoral elections in Khimki, a city of some 200,000 people just to the north of Moscow.
The leaders of the 10-month-old anti-Putin protest movement hope the vote will supply a morale-boosting and rare electoral triumph, with opposition figurehead and eco-activist Yevgeniya Chirikova challenging acting mayor Oleg Shakhov, who is backed by United Russia.
Chirikova, 35, has been Russia’s most high-profile environmental activist since she spearheaded a campaign to save Khimki forestland that stood in the path of a planned Moscow-St. Petersburg highway.
“The anti-Putin protest movement will not have a better chance of electoral triumph than in Khimki,” said Dmitry Abzalov, an analyst with the Moscow-based Center of Strategic Communications.
But although a poll by the radio station Ekho Moskvy indicated in September that Chrikova was the clear front-runner in the election race, a survey published by state-run pollster VTsIOM earlier this month suggested she is now trailing badly to Shakhov.
But Chirikova told RIA Novosti she believed the new polls had been ordered by the authorities to damage her chances of victory in Sunday’s vote and that her true level of support was much higher.
“I’m confident of victory,” she said.
She also alleged government employees had been pressured to cast their vote for Shakov and that she expected widespread vote-rigging.
“They are up to their usual tricks,” Chirikova added.
An online clip showed Chirikova and supporters, including the socialite-turned-opposition figure, Ksenia Sobchak, being forced off a trolleybus in Khimki last week as they attempted to drum up support.
Shakhov on Friday accused unnamed rival candidates of engaging in “dirty tricks” and provocations” in the run-up to the polls.
Chirikova has also said the authorities have fielded what she calls “spoiler” candidates to detract attention from her bid.
Russian heavy metal legend Sergei Troitsky, better known as Spider, has run a colorful election campaign in Khimki, which has included proposals to supply local residents with flying saucers.
Return of Governor Elections
The polls mark the return of direct elections for regional governors, with votes set to take place in five regions – Amur, Bryansk, Belgorod, Novgorod, and Ryazan. Direct gubernatorial polls were scrapped by Putin in 2005, but brought back as part of Kremlin electoral reforms that came into force on June 1.
Governors will be elected in only five of Russia’s regions because the Kremlin appointed new governors across the country earlier this year. These newly appointed governors will not now have to seek reelection for at least four years.
Opposition figures say they have been unable to get on the ballot paper in many regions due to Kremlin regulations obliging potential candidates to have their bid approved by between five and ten percent of municipal legislators (depending on the area). Opposition candidates allege regional legislators have come under pressure from Moscow to ignore their bids.
Another key vote looks set to take place in the central Russian city of Yaroslavl, where opposition candidate Yevgeny Urlashov achieved a landslide victory in April’s mayoral elections.
United Russia had its worst showing nationwide in the city at the December 2011 polls, gaining less than 30 percent of the vote, and Urlashov has pledged to ensure a level playing field for Sunday’s local parliament election.