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Analysis: Pskov's Last Try

Even as the State Duma is considering a bill that would cancel gubernatorial elections in general, the northwest region of Pskov Oblast is preparing to hold what could be its last such race.

Pskov is one of the poorest regions in Russia. Industrial production fell by a factor of four in the first half of the 1990s, and the population has dropped from 1.6 million at the end of the 1990s to 740,000 today, according to "Politicheskii zhurnal," No. 41. The death rate is triple the birthrate. Despite the oblast's apparent decline over the eight years of the rule of incumbent Governor Yevgenii Mikhailov, he is nonetheless in strong position to win the current contest, although most likely not in the first round.

On 14 November, Mikhailov will match up against seven competitors: local businessman Mikhail Bryachak, former State Duma Deputy Mikhail Kuznetsov (People's Deputy), former Federation Council representative for Kalmykia Igor Provkin, State Duma Deputy Aleksei Mitrofanov (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia), paratroop General Nikolai Staskov, retired General Aleksandr Solyanov, and housing administrator Andrei Tarasov. Tarasov is considered a "technical" candidate for Mikhailov, according to RFE/RL's Pskov correspondent on 21 October.

The Pskov election has exhibited many features that have plagued other gubernatorial races: legal battles among candidates, competing claims of Kremlin support, and the misuse of so-called administrative resources. Like many gubernatorial elections of recent years, the fiercest battles are being waged not in the court of public opinion but in the court of legal appeals.

On 6 November, the presidium of the Supreme Court ruled that popular Pskov Mayor Mikhail Khoronen cannot run in the election. The oblast election commission rejected Khoronen's registration application on 5 October because he allegedly used his post as mayor to support his campaign. Specifically, he held a campaign-related press conference in the mayoral administration building. This decision was overturned by an oblast court, but then reinstated by the Supreme Court. The ruling of the presidium of the Supreme Court put an end to Khoronen's bid.

Khoronen, who was supported by the Communist Party, was Mikhailov's toughest competition and some polls picked him to win the most votes in the first round. For example, a poll conducted by the Levada Analytical Center in the oblast during the last week of October found 35.1 percent support for Khoronen versus 25.9 percent for Mikhailov, according to Regnum on 6 November.

During the run-up to the campaign, Khoronen maintained that he didn't want to run for governor, particularly if Unified Russia decided to support Mikhailov, according to "Politicheskii zhurnal," No. 41. However, after Unified Russia decided to back Mikhailov, Khoronen unexpectedly and inexplicably changed his mind and decided to run. His decision split Pskov's political elite, triggering a backlash against him. In what Khoronen has labeled a "planned provocation" in support of Mikhailov, his deputy mayor and the chief financial administrator for his campaign, Pavel Drozdov, was detained on 1 November on suspicion of receiving a $7,000 bribe and coupons for gasoline worth 34,865 rubles ($1,200).
Like many gubernatorial elections of recent years, the fiercest battles are being waged not in the court of public opinion but in the court of legal appeals.

Another action taken against Khoronen was the introduction of emergency regulations in the city by the oblast to combat the spread of hepatitis C. According to RFE/RL's Pskov correspondent on 28 October, local doctors believe that such hepatitis outbreaks are seasonal, but the oblast administration accused Khoronen of not doing everything he could to prevent the spread of the disease and of not properly informing the population. All mass media controlled by the oblast administration broadcast information about the hepatitis outbreak, and residents were advised to not use tap water without boiling it first. Oblast-controlled media also carried a story designed to discredit another one of Mikhailov's other opponents: It broadcast a statement from a young woman who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by Provkin in his car.

Mikhailov has enjoyed the support not only of oblast media but also of presidential envoy for the Northwest Federal District Ilya Klebanov. On 8 November, Klebanov arrived in Pskov for a two-day visit, his second in a month. The two previous envoys visited Pskov only three times since 2000, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 10 November. Local television carried coverage of Klebanov commenting positively on the situation in the oblast. On 10 November, reported that Khoronen had taken the unprecedented step of refusing to meet with Klebanov during the visit. The news agency quoted Klebanov denouncing the claim that Drozdov's arrest was a provocation and criticizing Khoronen's call for citizens to vote "against all" candidates in the election.

Provkin tried to get a local court to declare Klebanov's activities illegal, but an oblast court rejected his suit on 8 November.

With Khoronen out of the way, there's little question that Mikhailov will qualify for a second round. The only uncertainty is who will compete against him. "Kommersant-Daily" argued that several other candidates, including Kuznetsov and Provkin, have a good chance, but much will depend on whether Khoronen decides to support one of them. Khoronen announced on 9 November that he does not plan to make an alliance with any candidate before 15 November. In an article for on 5 November -- written before Khoronen's disqualification -- analyst Georgii Kovalev predicted that "against all" could be the most popular choice in this election.

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