Although the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia juggernaut dominated the regional elections held on March 1, there were interesting developments at the margins that could indicate the colossus has feet of clay. The elections, of course, were "mid-term" local polls and so the Kremlin's level of involvement and control was toned down a notch compared to its micromanagement of the 2007 and 2008 national elections. It could even be argued that the latest polls were used as a test run to see how strong the local Unified Russia branches were.
One of the most interesting battlegrounds turned out to be the far northern city of Murmansk, where the mayoral election turned out to be surprisingly competitive. There was no clear winner after the March 1 first round, in which incumbent Mayor Mikhail Savchenko -- Unified Russia's candidate -- polled 31 percent and former Murmansk Oblast Deputy Governor Sergei Subbotin (an independent backed by oblast Governor Yury Yevdokimov) got 24 percent.
Yevdokimov, who is a Unified Russia member, took a lot of heat from the leadership for bucking the party line. But he held his ground and his horse came in after the March 15 second round. Subbotin scored an astonishing 61 percent of the vote, while Savchenko lagged back at just 35 percent. Predictably, Unified Russia said it would contest the result in court -- on the amusing grounds that party member Yevdokimov abused his position and violated the rights of voters. Local election commission officials have been quoted in the media as saying there were no significant violations, but local commissions have been overruled by the Central Election Commission in the past.
"Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted that Unified Russia had no complaints during Murmansk Oblast's legislative elections in March 2007, when Yevdokimov headed the party's local list of candidates and campaigned actively for the party on television and in public appearances right up until the day before the vote.
It would clearly be a mistake to describe Subbotin as an "opposition" figure. He has said he supports Unified Russia and is ready to work with the party of power. It can't be ruled out that the current rift will be healed by Subbotin eventually joining Unified Russia. Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told RFE/RL's Russian Service that "corporate interests proved more important than party interests" in the Murmansk poll. However, his campaign struck some significant "anti-center" themes and took advantage of voter resentment against the perception their choice was being made for them in Moscow.
A Unified Russia consultant who worked for Savchenko told "Kommersant" on condition of anonymity that "stories on the federal television channels about the good life in the city were window dressing, deceptions that don't work in the north." He added that "there is no power vertical here" and that "[Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin is not a player here and if the people are not relying on Putin, then they are relying on Yevdokimov." He concluded by saying "people here don't see anything good coming from the capital."
An unnamed source in the office of the presidential envoy to the Far North Federal District told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that local television -- controlled by Yevdokimov -- waged a relentless negative campaign against Savchenko that began long before the campaign began. As a result, the source concluded, many voters didn't vote so much for Subbotin as against Savchenko. Subbotin's 61 percent vote total reflects the fact that the entire protest vote went to him.
Ironically, Unified Russia was hurt by one of the many anti-democratic initiatives it has rammed into the political system over the last few years -- namely, the elimination of the "against all candidates" line on the ballot. "Novyye izvestia" reported that more than 25 percent of the ballots in the second-round mayoral race in the far eastern city of Partizansk were intentionally spoiled. As a result, the Unified Russia candidate there won with only a 42 percent plurality.
The Kremlin is no doubt looking carefully at the situation in Murmansk and the other contested mayoral elections around the country, particularly as national (and international) attention turns to the April 26 mayoral race in Sochi. Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov has thrown down the gauntlet there in a vote that, if even reasonably fair, could put to the test the notions that Russians support the "soft totalitarianism" of Putin's Russia and that the liberal opposition is hopelessly feckless (read an RFE/RL Russian Service interview with Nemtsov here). The Kremlin can hardly afford to lose control of an internationally visible city like Sochi now, and it seems unlikely it would tolerate an articulate critic like Nemtsov on such a visible platform. What remains to be seen is just how far the power vertical will go to prevent this from happening.