Some 20 candidates have applied to run in the April 26 mayoral election in Sochi and last weekend the first two -- local businessman Pavel Yemelyanenko and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov -- were registered for the ballot. Nemtsov's registration came as a pleasant surprise to the candidate himself and many observers, who predicted the Kremlin would not be willing to allow so articulate and staunch an opponent to grab so much limelight.
It seems the plan to manipulate the election is slightly more subtle than just blocking Nemtsov from running. For one thing, Nemtsov's campaign received a $5,000 donation from a Russian businessman in New York, in violation of local campaign law. Although election officials said Nemtsov would not be in violation of the law if he returns the money, the incident was a clear provocation. Nemtsov said that no one except the local election commission knew the number of the campaign's account.
"The Moscow Times" identified the mysterious donor as a Russian named Boris Glickstein living in New York. Speaking to the daily, Glickstein confirmed that he had sent the money. "I was asked to make a contribution," he said, although he claimed he could not remember when or by whom. I guess he's one of those guys who cuts $5,000 checks on a whim. One can only hope that law enforcement in New York will look into the matter.
Today Russian media reported that all of the main television channels have decided not to participate in the campaign. That is, they will not give broadcast time to the candidates. Only three local firms filed papers with the election commission saying that they would participate and some of them do not actually broadcast. Even the local state-controlled affiliate of Rossiya television has bowed out of the race, although election law says state media must participate.
One can understand, of course, why broadcasters would be reluctant to join this circus. With 20 candidates running, the prospect of giving all of them equal airtime for free probably didn't seem that attractive. In addition, if they look north to Murmansk, they can see a local cable station there being scrutinized for allegedly airing illegal campaign agitation in the recent mayoral race there. Easier just to say thanks, but no thanks.
Of course, the Kremlin's candidate, Unified Russia's acting Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov, can count on plenty of coverage in the news programming, while the other candidates will be glad-handing voters one by one at markets and bus stops. This is exactly what Nemtsov intends to do, since he has also been barred from campaigning in any of the resort town's recreation areas or other municipal spaces. Of course, such a campaign leaves him open to harassment by pro-Kremlin activists from groups like Nashi. Nemtsov has said it was Nashi activists who threw ammonia at him earlier this month.
The local media blackout means the most competitive and interesting election Russia has seen in at least a decade -- and more likely two -- will take place largely out of the view of local voters. Of course, Nemtsov regularly appears in newspapers and other private, Moscow-based media. And the Sochi contest has garnered front-page coverage from newspapers around the world. But the people eligible to vote will be shut out -- a situation the would-be liberal reformer President Dmitry Medvedev might find hard to justify.