Anatoly Pahkomov, Sochi's acting mayor, probably thought he was going to have an easy time of it in the city's April 26 municipal election.
He appeared to have the support of the ruling Unified Russia party, and all the administrative resources that entails. His city is hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, which means a lot of Kremlin-sponsored largesse will be in the pipeline for awhile. And his likely opponent, local Communist leader Yury Dzagania, is a perennial also-ran candidate with little chance of mounting a serious challenge.
Then things got complicated.
First, the opposition group Solidarity -- perhaps sensing the elite's vulnerability as the economy sputters -- decided to make a statement in Sochi by nominating one of its heavyweights, Boris Nemtsov, as its candidate for mayor.
Nemtsov, who was governor of Nizhny Novgorod and First Deputy Prime Minister in the 1990s, was actually born in Sochi, meaning he can play the role of a native son returning.
But can Nemtsov actually mount a serious challenge?
If he is actually allowed to run -- still a big if -- he can at least make the campaign an uncomfortable experience for the authorities. In a recent interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service
, Nemtsov gave a hint of what we can expect from him on the stump:
You know what I would do first [as mayor of Sochi]? I would abolish censorship in Sochi, and Sochi would be the first city with a free press in Putin's Russia. It is also necessary to establish public control over the vast amounts of money being spent here. Generally, the main task of the mayor of Sochi in these conditions is to protect local residents from corrupt, bandit investment schemes going on here.
According to a report in "Vremya novostei
," the local authorities are doing their best to deny him a platform:
Local observers are convinced that the authorities will do everything in their power to deny Nemtsov official registration. On March 11, local journalists received calls from the Directorate of Information and Analysis of the municipal administration where they were informed of 'Mayor Pakhomov's personal request' that they ignore Nemtsov's campaign and even his arrival in Sochi. Journalists said the initiative came from Galina Snimschikova, who was recently a functionary of the Krasnodar regional administration and is currently the mastermind behind Pakhomov's campaign.
And if Nemtsov's entry into the race wasn't enough, two more "celebrity" candidates have also decided to enter the fray.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia announced on Friday that it was considering nominating Andrei Lugovoi
as its candidate. Lugovoi, a former KGB officer, is Britain's main suspect in the 2006 poisoning death of émigré Kremlin critic Aleksandr Litvinenko in London. Moscow's steadfast refused to extradite Lugovoi has been a sore point in Russian-British relations.
And today, billionaire businessman Aleksandr Lebedev
-- who last year announced he would team up with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to form a new political party -- indicated that he will run as well.
At this point, I have more questions than answers about what is really going on in Sochi and why.
Solidarity's motivation in nominating Nemtsov is obvious enough -- they're the opposition and they see a chance to make a statement and get attention.
But why is the obedient pro-Kremlin LDPR running someone as controversial as Lugovoi?
What is Lebedev's angle in Sochi?
And with the election a little more than a month away, why hasn't Unified Russia nominated Pahkomov as its official candidate yet?
-- Brian Whitmore