Could it be fate that former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov was born and raised in Sochi, the resort city whose April 26 mayoral election could offer Russia's embattled liberal opposition a back door onto the national political stage? Even his preternaturally deep tan -- which is decidedly off-putting to most Russia voters -- could work to Nemtsov's advantage in this fashionable beach resort.
Although the Kremlin has long viewed direct mayoral elections as a weak link in the strict power vertical built up under Vladimir Putin, it has moved slowly to eliminate them. Perhaps because, until now, the only cities that had the potential to play a role in national politics were Moscow and St. Petersburg. But those are so-called federal cities, and their executive-branch heads are appointed by the president, the same as the countries' governors and other top regional executives.
But Putin's successful effort to win the 2014 Winter Olympic Games for Sochi has now thrust that city into the national and international spotlight -- and given Nemtsov and the opposition Solidarity movement a rare chance to attract attention despite the country's strictly controlled political environment.Political Nuisance
Political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the Kremlin-dominated Unified Russia party, which is seen as the bastion of the entrenched bureaucracy and is headed by Prime Minister Putin, will have a hard time in the Sochi battle.
"Sochi is a city that differs somewhat from your average Russian city," Pribylovsky said. "The capitalist economy is fairly developed there, and modern ideas have penetrated society somewhat. If an honest election is held there, Unified Russia has no chance."
Sochi presents a difficult test for President Dmitry Medvedev, whose reputation as a relative liberal would be dealt a harsh blow if the election were perceived as being dishonest or blatantly manipulated. The first hurdle will be whether officials include Nemtsov on the list of registered candidates due to be announced on March 26.
Unified Russia Duma Deputy Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political commentator, told Press-Volga last week that the entire point of Nemtsov's campaign is "to provoke the authorities into removing him from the race."
Already Nemtsov is complaining of harassment. On March 17, he was denied admission to an open forum of Sochi businesspeople. He told RFE/RL's Russian Service the same day that administrative opposition will force him to work directly with voters, a tactic that might prove successful on the municipal level.
"They have cut off access for me to all the television channels, all the newspapers, all the radio stations -- that much is clear," Nemtsov said.
He noted that just one in 10 residents of Sochi has Internet access, a situation that is made worse by a shaky communication network.
"So the only chance for me is direct meetings with people on the street, in stores, at bus stops, on the beach, in restaurants and cafes, wherever -- with taxi drivers," Nemtsov said. "This is the main thing -- meeting people. I intend from morning until night to meet with people and to explain to them exactly what is happening."More Than Games
If Nemtsov is able to pursue the mayoral race, he will have a high-profile platform from which to release his upcoming report on the planning for the 2014 Olympics. Nemtsov told RFE/RL the report will be presented in Moscow, in Sochi, and to the International Olympic Committee next month. It was coauthored by former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov, with whom Nemtsov has already published three major studies of corruption and cronyism under Putin.
The real kingmaker in the Sochi race may turn out to be Aleksandr Tkachev, since 2000 the powerful governor of Krasnodar Krai -- where Sochi is located -- and a member of Russia's Olympic organizing committee. Tkachev bears the primary responsibility for the local success of the Sochi games, Markov has noted, and so there can be no conflict between his office and the city mayor.
"We should say thank you [to the other candidates in the race] since the more competitive the election is, the more effective the new leader will be -- and it will certainly be [acting Sochi Mayor Anatoly] Pakhomov, as Tkachev's man," Markov said. "To be more precise, Tkachev will be the real mayor of Sochi."