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Opposition Candidates Cry Foul As Sochi Goes To Polls


Anatoly Pakhomov
(RFE/RL) -- Voters in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi -- the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics -- are going to the polls to choose a mayor amid allegations that the campaign has been weighted in favor of the Kremlin's candidate.

Voting concludes at 8 p.m. local time. Election officials say they expect results to be available on April 27.

The ballot is seen as a test of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's pledges to boost democracy in Russia, which critics say has been undermined by Medvedev's predecessor -- and now prime minister -- Vladimir Putin.

Leading opposition candidates on the ballot are complaining about the Kremlin-backed incumbent candidate, Anatoly Pakhomov.

They say Pakhomov has exerted pressure on state workers to vote and has unfairly dominated local news broadcasts.

Cut Candidates To Six

A host of celebrities were among 26 original candidates in the race. But election officials have cut the number of candidates to six. And now, across the political spectrum, candidates who were eliminated from the ballot claim they are the victims of official pressure.

Indeed, Sochi's streets are devoid of opposition billboards. News programs on local private television heavily feature the Kremlin-backed incumbent Pakhomov. Those television stations also reportedly have refused to accept paid election advertising from other candidates -- essentially preventing the opposition from getting their message out to voters by television.

Former Bolshoi ballerina Anastasia Volochkova and Aleksandr Lebedev, the multimillionaire owner of Britain's "Evening Standard" newspaper, are among those barred from running. Both say they were illegally removed from the ballot due to registration problems.

Boris Nemtsov, the highest profile opposition candidate, is still in the race.

Nikolai Petrov, a Moscow-based political analyst from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells Reuters that the significance of the Sochi vote has been raised by the fact that the resort city will soon become an Olympic venue.

"Sochi can be seen as a kind of the third capital of Russia in terms that during summer time the prime minister [and] the president are there, and many different events are going on there. And it attracts a lot of attention," Petrov says.

"But due to the fact that 2014 Winter Olympic Games will take place in Sochi, there is huge money which should be spent regardless of the economic crisis. And there already is very intensive competition for this money."

Indeed, with a Russian state budget equal to about $6 billion U.S. dollars, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games are one of Putin's favorite projects.

Petrov explains that the winner of the current election will have virtual veto power over many of the construction projects that are linked to the 2014 Games.

"It's very important for Mr. Putin, for whom Sochi's Olympics are his brainchild," Petrov says. "This is the project which is controlled by him personally. It's very important for him to be sure that he is guaranteed from any kind of opposition.

"It was already declared by Mr. Nemtsov that in case he will be elected the mayor, he will revise the whole concept of Olympic Games. He will refuse from some of large scale construction projects and he will offer to organize this Olympic Games in some other places -- not only in Sochi."

'100 Percent Dishonest'

Yury Dzagania, candidate for the Communist Party, said after voting that the election is the worst in Russia for years. Dzagania described the campaign and ballot as "100 percent dishonest."

But the head of the city Election Commission, Yury Rykov, has rejected such criticism. Rykov says the vibrancy of the race is a "step forward" for civil society in Russia -- where mayors are among the few positions still directly elected.

Public opinion polls suggest Pakhomov will have a hard time securing the 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a second-round runoff ballot.

A recent opinion survey -- commissioned by the Krasnodar Krai administration and conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation -- predicts Pakhomov will win about 40 percent support of the vote, followed by Nemtsov with 18 percent, and Dzagania with 8 percent. Twenty-three percent of voters questioned in the survey said they were undecided.

Nemtsov and Dzagania have both conceded that Pakhomov is well in the lead. But both say it will be a struggle for Pakhomov to get the majority of votes required to avoid a second round runoff.

Nemtsov concludes that whatever the outcome of the ballot is, the campaign already has proven that Medvedev is failing to impose his liberal agenda on a country that is still dominated by Putin.