YEKATERINBURG/MOSCOW -- As a mysterious power cut forced an opposition concert to be held by candlelight in Yekaterinburg this week, there was little doubt among those present that the event had been deliberately sabotaged by the ruling party ahead of this weekend's State Duma elections.
But in this Urals city, home to a spirited opposition, the move appeared to have backfired.
Rimma Markova, a popular Russian actress, had arrived in Yekaterinburg, the capital of Russia's Sverdlovsk Oblast, to deliver a speech at a concert for A Just Russia, a one-time pro-Kremlin party that has gone into opposition and has a strong local branch in the city.
Aleksandr Burkov, the regional head of A Just Russia, said the authorities suddenly denied his supporters permission to hold a concert two hours before it was due to start, citing mysterious power cuts and fire hazards.
"They closed the doors, even called the police, and then called the fire services and pretended there was a danger of fire to keep people out," Burkov recounts. "Then the people broke down the doors and literally carried Rimma Markova to the stage -- and there in the dark, under candlelight, she began the concert."
Such small victories for A Just Russia in Yekaterinburg have propelled the party, led by former Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov, to the status of chief rival to the ruling United Russia in the city and surrounding Sverdlovsk Oblast.
"Every one of these scandals without a doubt plays into the hands of the victims. They can stand before the electorate as the humiliated, the insulted, and the offended," political analyst Aleksandr Pirogov explains. "As a rule, the people like these kinds of people."
A Just Russia has faced other, arguably more sinister, forms of pressure in the city as well. Gennady Ushakov, a Just Russia deputy in the Yekaterinburg city Duma, was hospitalized with a broken nose and heavy bruising to the face after two unidentified men attacked him late on October 31.
Reliable polling data is not available for Yekaterinburg or the surrounding Sverdlovsk Oblast. But political analysts say the ruling party has clearly lost a lot of support there, with A Just Russia being the main beneficiary.
Fyodor Krasheninnikov, an independent Yekaterinburg-based political analyst, says polls conducted last week in a few Sverdlovsk Oblast towns showed United Russia garnering roughly 20 percent support, with A Just Russia taking around 32 percent.
But Krasheninnikov warned that such figures could change if, as he expects, the election results are "manipulated, to put it mildly." He suggested the authorities could easily add 10-15 percent to United Russia vote total.
"If we're talking about fair results, then United Russia cannot get higher than 30 percent by definition because I have not seen one poll where they got higher," Krasheninnikov said. "The governor's specialists published an article yesterday in which they said that United Russia is aiming for 40-45 percent and said that this is a really good result. Then they took the article down really quickly, clearly because there was disagreement over publishing their rating. But it shows that they are now going for 40-45 -- this is their aim despite having earlier set out to win 65 percent."
In the 2007 State Duma elections, United Russia won 62 percent of the vote and A Just Russia won 7.5 percent.
The Rest Of The Field
A Just Russia has also benefited from a robust advertising campaign in the region and from adding popular local politicians such as former Communist lawmaker Georgy Persky to its party list.
It has also helped that other parties are not mounting particularly strong campaigns in the region.
The Communist Party has campaigned actively on the Internet and held local street rallies, but are thought to not have invested the same resources as A Just Russia in the region.
The nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia has been quiet in its local campaign, relying on the appeal of its charismatic leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, to secure votes.
The liberal Yabloko party's campaign in Sverdlovsk has meanwhile faltered as its branch leader, Maksim Petlin, has remained in pretrial detention over charges of taking bribes.
written and reported by Tom Balmforth in Moscow and Yekaterina Petrova in Yekaterinburg