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Russia: Leningrad Oblast Election Mirroring St. Petersburg's

St. Petersburg, 30 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- On the surface, the approach to the Leningrad Oblast gubernatorial election September 29 bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the St. Petersburg gubernatorial elections at the same stage last spring.

In St. Petersburg, incumbent Anatoly Sobchak seemed to be on a smooth slide to reelection. Then his deputy, Vladimir Yakovlev, jumped into the race. Yakovlev consolidated the anti-Sobchak vote and, in a runoff in June, became St. Petersburg's governor.

In the Leningrad Oblast gubernatorial election, incumbent Alexander Belyakov has seemed to be on a smooth slide to reelection.

Both Belyakov and Vadim Gustov, the former speaker of the Leningrad Oblast Soviet, had turned in the 13,000 signatures required for their candidacies, but Belyakov was a clear frontrunner. Then last Friday, his former deputy, Nikolai Smirnov, obtained Electoral Commission authorization to go after the signatures. He must collect them by tomorrow.

Smirnov served as mayor of Vyborg from 1987 until 1994, when he was appointed head of the Leningrad Oblast government by Belyakov. He resigned last March over differences with the governor.

Says political analyst and Yabloko Party activist Boris Vishnevsky: "Smirnov could be the Yakovlev of the oblast."

President Boris Yeltsin appointed Belyakov Leningrad Oblast governor in 1991. This is Belyakov's first bid for democratic election. He appears to have secured the support of several local political parties, but continued Kremlin support for him is uncertain. The oblast is an autonomous administrative region, adjacent to but independent of St Petersburg.

The St Petersburg Political Council, an alliance of local liberal parties will meet Tuesday to endorse a candidate. Tatyana Dorutina, chair of the Free Democratic Party and a member of the council, says that, so far, council constituents Free Democrats, Forward Russia, Common Cause and the Congress of Russian Communities are leaning toward Belyakov. The council conceivably could mobilize the liberal vote behind one candidate or another.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the Green Party and Greenpeace are supporting Gustov, a left-leaning independent. Gustov makes the point that his support goes wider than the communists. He also claims trade unions, veterans and other social groups.

Smirnov's candidacy could end up helping the incumbent if it splits the anti-Belyakov vote. Under the electoral law, if more than one candidate gets 25 percent or more of the voter, or if no candidate polls that percentage, a run-off must be held. Smirnov's success may depend on whether he can consolidate the oblast's anti-Belyakov liberal vote behind him, as Yakovlev did in St. Petersburg.