A Tale Of Two 'Parties Of Power'
The races are shaping up as two-horse contests, in which the newest "party of power" is challenging its more established, better-funded counterpart.
Perhaps the most significant feature of the regional legislative election campaigns has been the further marginalization of post-Soviet Russia's two main liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS).
Two 'Opponents' Go Head To Head
Meanwhile, some of the fiercest, and perhaps the only real, competition has been taking place between the two main pro-Kremlin parties -- Unified Russia, headed by State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, and A Just Russia, headed by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov. Both men are close allies and long-time associates of President Vladimir Putin.
All of Unified Russia's and A Just Russia's candidate lists were registered in all 14 regions with no complications.
MORE: Follow election coverage in Russian on the website of RFE/RL's Russian Service.
The main "party of power," Unified Russia, appears to have benefited greatly from "administrative resources" -- in particular, decisions made by regional election commissions hindering rival parties.
Dmitry Oreshkin, who heads the Merkator research group, noted in the weekly magazine "Ogonyok" on March 5 that while only 4 percent of the party lists submitted in October's regional elections were rejected, 16 percent of the party lists submitted during this contest have been rejected.
However, none of the two Kremlin-backed parties' lists was rejected -- all of Unified Russia's and A Just Russia's candidate lists were registered in all 14 regions with no complications. Another reliably pro-Kremlin grouping, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), likewise was able to get its lists registered in all 14 regions.
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) was denied registration in the Republic of Daghestan and in Tyumen Oblast, but its candidate lists were reinstated in both those federation subjects after the party challenged the rejections in court.
"Kommersant-Vlast" wrote on February 12 that the fact the KPRF was ultimately allowed to run candidates in Daghestan and Tyumen (according the weekly, the Communists themselves admitted it was made possible with "help from the top") "once more demonstrates that the Kremlin still needs [KPRF leader] Gennady Zyuganov's moderate opposition party -- if only because were it disqualified from elections, many of its supporters would either vote for more radical and less manageable parties, or join the ranks of the street opposition, in whose activities the Kremlin still sees the real threat of an 'Orange Revolution'."
Meanwhile, the SPS was refused registration in Vologda, Pskov, and Tyumen oblasts. It was also banned from running in Daghestan, owing to a unique feature of that republic's election law that requires parties to field at least one candidate in each of Daghestan's 53 regions. However, the SPS managed to get a decision barring it from running candidates in Samara Oblast overturned.
Yabloko was refused registration in Oryol Oblast and St. Petersburg. The election commission in Russia's second city said that the number of invalid signatures in the petitions that Yabloko submitted in support of its bid to run in the St. Petersburg's Legislative Assembly election exceeded the threshold of 10 percent.
Yabloko's appeal to the Central Election Commission (TsVK) was rejected -- a decision which, according to Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, turned the St. Petersburg contest into a "pseudo" election "no better than those we had back in the Soviet era."
As "The St. Petersburg Times" reported on February 16, Yavlinsky said his party believed that the TsVK was "following a political order from [St. Petersburg] Governor Valentina Matviyenko, with the full support of the presidential administration -- and perhaps even President Vladimir Putin personally."
Yabloko appealed to Russia's Supreme Court, but on March 6 it, too, rejected Yabloko's appeal. The Supreme Court had ruled the previous day to keep the Socialist Unified Party of Russia, headed by State Duma Deputy Vasily Shestakov, out of the St. Petersburg race.
As newsru.com reported on March 6, the St. Petersburg branch of Yabloko called on voters to protest the ban by voting for all of the parties appearing on the ballot on March 11 and promised to hold a large protest in the city sometime after the vote.
In addition to alleged bias by the election authorities, Yabloko has experienced other problems. As gazeta.ru reported on March 2, several party activists -- including a leader of Yabloko's youth wing, Ivan Bolshakov, and the press secretary of the party's Moscow chapter, Igor Yakovlev -- were beaten up in the Moscow Oblast town of Balashikha by a group of young men who demanded that they stop campaigning there, insisting that only Unified Russia was allowed to operate in Balashikha. According to the victims, the attackers did not conceal that they were Unified Russia members.
Focus On Samara
Such incidents notwithstanding, the only real competition in the race is between Unified Russia and the more recently created "party of power" -- A Just Russia. As "The Moscow Times" reported from Samara in an article published March 7, A Just Russia, which is headed in the region by Samara Mayor Viktor Tarkhov, has filed more complaints than any other party to the regional election commission. Most of them reportedly charge that Unified Russia, which is led there by Samara Oblast Governor Konstantin Titov, has received preferential coverage in the local media.
A Just Russia has also put up billboards proclaiming itself as "the party of justice against a gang of embezzlers of public funds." According to the newspaper, another "typical billboard" features a picture of the governor on one side and the mayor on the other, with a caption under Titov's picture stating: "Fifteen years in power, and [Titov's] son is a dollar millionaire."
Whether or not such populist appeals will help the new "party of power" successfully challenge its more established counterpart remains to be seen. Merkator research group head Oreshkin, for one, thinks not. He predicted in the weekly "Ogonyok" on March 5 that Unified Russia will win in all 14 regions, averaging 40-45 percent of the vote, with A Just Russia coming in second, averaging 15-20 percent.
(Jonas Bernstein is a freelance Russia analyst in Washington, D.C.)
Opposition Voices Stifled In Regional Polls, Critics Say
In addition, by-elections and municipal elections will be held this weekend in a number of other regions, along with several referendums.
Two parties, Unified Russia and A Just Russia, are likely to dominate the polls. But opposition groups say both parties are fiercely loyal to the Kremlin, and complain that any real opponents have been sidelined.
Critics say any real opposition has been pushed out of the vote to ensure that parliamentary elections later this year and the presidential election in 2008 go smoothly. An unusually high number of parties has been barred from running in the regional elections on technical grounds.
In St. Petersburg, the local election commission ruled that the opposition Yabloko party could not run in the city's Legislative Assembly elections after 10.5 percent of the signatures gathered for registration were declared invalid. Electoral law allows up to 10 percent of the signatures not to be valid. Yabloko is popular in St. Petersburg, usually receiving between 10 and 20 percent of the vote.
On March 6, Russia's Supreme Court rejected the party's appeal to be reinstated. A senior member of Yabloko in St. Petersburg, Mikhail Amosov, reportedly called the court ruling a "political decision."
St. Petersburg Boycott
Prior to the decision, Yabloko Deputy Chairman Sergei Mitrokhin, a State Duma deputy, said that the party was considering boycotting the vote in St. Petersburg.
"We will do this if the court decides against reinstating Yabloko in the polls. We consider that our candidature was removed unlawfully, under the instruction of the [St. Petersburg] governor, [Valentina] Matviyenko, who has a personal grudge against the opposition," Mitrokhin said.
But the Central Election Commission, headed by Aleksandr Veshnyakov, argued ahead of today's Supreme Court decision that excluding Yabloko from the ballot in St. Petersburg was justified.
In a number of other regions the Communist Party and the Union of Rightist Forces have been barred from running, although in a few cases they have appealed successfully to be put back on the ballot.
Some commentators say the Kremlin is hoping the March 11 vote will establish two solid, loyal parties before the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, and sideline any real opposition.
They believe that President Vladimir Putin, who is due to step down in 2008, is counting on a smooth handover to a successor he has not yet named.
Nikolai Petrov, a political commentator at the Moscow office of the Carnegie Center, says there is clear change in the Kremlin's standing.
"It can be described as a refusal from cooperation with loyal opposition, represented by semi-independent political parties like, say, Yabloko and SPS as liberal parties, like, say, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation," Petrov said.
"Instead of continuing cooperation with them, the Kremlin now is dealing with those political parties that were established by itself, and which are totally controlled by the Kremlin."
St. Petersburg Rally
On March 3, a group of loosely connected opposition parties rallied in St. Petersburg to protest against their being pushed aside. In a rare show of defiance in a country largely loyal to the president, more than 3,000 demonstrators took to the city's main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt, accompanied by a robust police force. More than 100 people were arrested and many suffered injuries in clashes with riot police.
But analyst Petrov says that whether the small, but vocal, opposition is taken into account or not, the vote is unlikely to bring any changes to the way the country is run.
"The possibility for political parties to influence decision making is negligible and, if in the majority of countries political parties are forming the government, in the case of Russia it's vice versa. The government is forming political parties to provide dominance in the State Duma [Russia's lower house of parliament] and political parties in a lot of cases look like just electoral projects. They are appearing on the eve of elections, they are very important players at the time of elections, but nobody is looking at them after elections," Petrov said.
Russia: Yabloko To Boycott St. Petersburg Elections
"I had been collecting signatures," Sokolov said. "And at the bottom of the list were written my details. 'Sokolov, Vitaly Mikhailovich.' My passport number. That I live at Svetlanovsky Avenue No. 46, Building 1. But the police said my address didn't exist. They said there's a No. 46, but no Building 1. Although in my passport it's written that I live at No. 46, Building 1. And on the sign on our building says No. 46, building 1. But there's no getting through to these people."
The Yabloko party, which has a relatively strong support base in St. Petersburg, was taken off the ballot in February after the local election commission declared that more than 10 percent of its signatures were invalid.
"It's a bit like the Russian saying goes: it's difficult to prove that you're not a camel," a Yabloko official said.
MORE: Follow election coverage in Russian from RFE/RL's Russian Service.
In other regions, the opposition Union of Rightist Forces and the Communist Party have also been barred from running in the elections, though in some places they have been reinstated following appeals.
No Friends Of Matviyenko
Mikhail Amosov, a member of parliament in the Yabloko faction in St. Petersburg, says he sees the hand of the Petersburg government, led by Valentina Matviyenko, in his party's exclusion from the vote.
"Yabloko is a popular party, that's the first thing," Amosov said. "Secondly, it's an opposition party. In the current parliament in St. Petersburg there are three members from the Yabloko faction, and we were the only three deputies to vote against the appointment of Valentina Matviyenko to the post of governor. It seems that this is very inconvenient for them and a lot of people don't like it."
Following the local election commission's decision to remove Yabloko from the poll, the party took its appeal to Moscow, bringing with them some of the people who were told their signatures were not valid. But the Central Election Commission ruled that the handwriting was not theirs and that Yabloko could not participate.
"Of course we're not able to fight against this," Amosov said. "It's a bit like the Russian saying goes: it's difficult to prove that you're not a camel."
Now Yabloko is calling for its voters to protest the election by spoiling their ballot papers.
"Generally speaking, we don't see a party that's close to us, that we could say to our supporters -- 'we're not running, so vote for them," Amosov explains. "We thought for a long time about how we should proceed, and we've said, 'OK, let's vote for all the parties at the same time.' On the ballot papers there are six boxes, opposite the six candidates, so let's go to the polling station and put six ticks or six crosses. Or you could write "Yabloko" in the boxes -- that's six letters [in Russian] or 'against.' That's a way to spoil your ballot paper. Because the spoilt ballot papers have to be counted."
A Bid To Marginalize The Opposition?
Some voters in St. Petersburg said they were angry at the decision to remove Yabloko.
"It's a complete and utter disgrace," says Lyubov Yezheleva, who works for a nongovernmental organization. "Because in this region, Yabloko had a lot of support. And those members of the local parliament who have joined forces with Yabloko are the most authoritative people there, they are well known to people for the good things they do, for being the most upstanding, the most trusted in the whole place. How can they be deprived of standing in the elections? I just can't understand it."
Sokolov, the retired teacher, said he would vote another way.
"I'm voting for the Communists. But I think taking Yabloko out of the election was an order. Who gave the order? It's hard to say. I can only guess," he says with a chuckle.
Some commentators have said it is an attempt by the Kremlin to marginalize small, opposition parties before parliamentary elections later this year. Recent changes in the law have made it more difficult for small or independent factions to enter parliament.
But the government denies the claims, saying there will be a free and fair race between the two main parties, Unified Russia and A Just Russia. Both parties are fiercely loyal to the Kremlin.
St. Petersburg -- The Cradle Of The Political Elite
For three centuries, the building has stood on the city's oldest square, beside the house where Peter the Great lived soon after he gave the order to move the Russian capital from Moscow to the north.
In 1917, when the mansion belonged to the ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya, Vladimir Lenin returned from exile and, in a room at the back of the house, persuaded the Bolshevik government to establish a Soviet regime in Russia.
As the Political History Museum shows, St. Petersburg -- also known in the past as Petrograd and then Leningrad -- has long produced many members of Russia's ruling elites.
Aleksander Smirnov is a historian and a guide at the museum, which is currently showing an exhibition called "300 Years Of St. Petersburg In Russian Politics."
Breaking Up The Moscow Monopoly
"When Vladimir Putin became the president, he gave himself a task," Smirnov said. "He needed to establish a new kind of politics, because for him it was obvious that the regime of the 1990s would lead the country nowhere. But he couldn't rely on the politicians in Moscow, because they were too close to the people we call the 'oligarchs,' those people who got mixed up in corruption. For Putin it was important to bring in a new era of what he saw as the Petersburg phenomenon, the Petersburg mentality, and he could only do this by bringing in new faces. And so he chose his government from people that he knew personally."
Smirnov says it is possible that had Putin come from a different city, the government might now be made up of politicians from a completely different part of Russia.
But, he says, St. Petersburg has always played an important role in the country's ruling elite:
"Our exhibition is evidence of the fact that this is not the only episode when St. Petersburgers have been in power," he says. "Throughout the 20th century, the city on the Neva has attempted to nominate whole teams of St. Petersburgers, or individuals, who try to steer their own political course in Moscow."
Against a background of stirring Soviet music, the exhibition shows the rise to power of men and women from St. Petersburg.
They include Grigory Zinovyev and Sergei Kirov, Bolshevik revolutionaries who, at the height of their careers, wielded enormous power. But later they would fall out of favor with Stalin. Kirov was assassinated in 1934 and Zinovyev was shot under Stalin's orders during the show trials of the 1930s.
More recently, the city has produced Anatoly Chubais, who rose to prominence for his role in privatization and the creation of the Russian tycoons of the 1990s. Also Galina Starovoitova, a member of parliament best known for promoting democratic reform, who was shot in St. Petersburg in 1998.
What Is The Reason?
Yevgeny Artyomov, the director of the museum, says there may be another reason the city has produced so many prominent politicians.
"Since Leningrad is known as the window on Europe, perhaps the fresh winds of democracy blow toward St. Petersburg faster than, say, to those living closer to Asia," he says. "And maybe that's what's needed in our country today, to shift us out of the complex dead-end, if we can call it that, we currently find ourselves in."
Smirnov doesn't entirely agree. He describes some of the traits that distinguish St. Petersburgers from other Russians
"The first is modernization," he says. "The second trait of political leaders from St. Petersburg -- well, I don't agree with those who say that they are democratic. On the contrary, many of them tend to be fond of strong authority, a strong personality who, because of this, takes all the responsibility."
Outside St. Petersburg State University on Vassilievsky Island, where Vladimir Putin studied, students were divided as to why many of the country's elite come from their city.
"That's just the way it's worked out," one man said. "I don't know. They could just as easily be from Moscow. I don't think that means they'll have a particular Petersburg mentality or something like that. It's just a coincidence."
"I think it's a good thing, because people always say why is everyone from Moscow?" a second man argued. "Why is it like that? Putin, in our view, wanted to put a stop to that and bring in people specifically from St. Petersburg, because there aren't any other megapolises in the country. By all accounts, it shouldn't be that everyone comes from the same city. So what Putin's doing, in principle he's right."
Shadow Of The KGB
But for Irina Kondrashova, a lecturer at the St. Petersburg State Polytechnic Institute, the real concern is not that today's leaders come from one city.
"What worries me is that all the political leaders from St. Petersburg come from one organization," she says. "The KGB has nothing to do with a geographic location. It's an organization. And I'd say it would be more useful to discuss that type of person -- the type that belongs to that organization, who was educated in that system and now lives by its rules. It seems to me that in the current situation it's not important where a person comes from, geographically speaking."
Putin reached the rank of lieutenant colonel in the KGB and was stationed in Dresden, East Germany, between 1985 and 1990. Sergei Ivanov, until recently the defense minister, was a contemporary.
There is just under a year to go before Russians go to the polls to elect a new president. Putin has not yet named his favored candidate to take over when he steps down, as he has promised to.
But two men are widely rumored to be rivals for the job: Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev. Both hold the title of first deputy prime minister, and both come from St Petersburg.