At first glance, it appears that the regime got its clock cleaned in Tolyatti's mayoral election this weekend. But first glances can often be deceiving.
Independent candidate Sergei Andreyev won the March 18 runoff in a landslide, taking 56.9 percent of the vote to the 40.6 percent garnered by United Russia's Aleksandr Shakhov.
"Tolyatti is a city with a high level of protest activity. In [the State Duma elections in] December, the Communists won there. Protests there were larger and stronger than elsewhere," St. Petersburg-based political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov told the daily "Kommersant." "Additionally, Andreyev is a leader and public-policy expert without many negatives."
Andreyev is also not exactly a fire-breathing oppositionist.
He served in the Tolyatti city legislature, the Samara Oblast Duma, and in the regional administration as the minister in charge of natural resources, forestry, and environmental protection.
With an establishment-friendly biography like that, analysts say the authorities aren't very concerned about Andreyev's victory.
“Both Andreyev and Shakhov were convenient for [Samara Oblast] Governor [Vladimir] Artyakov, This is the key point," Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the Moscow-based International Institute for Political Expertise, told Gazeta.ru.
"Considering how much United Russia's rating has fallen, it is understandable that they are using their [political] technology not only with party-nominated candidates but also with self-nominated candidates as well," he said.
United Russia's numbers are indeed anemic in Tolyatti, where it won just 24,76 percent of the vote in the December 4 State Duma elections. In the surrounding Samara Oblast, the party won just 39.37 percent.
So what happened in Tolyatti might just become a template for how the ruling elite approaches elections to regional legislatures in the autumn.
Vadim Solovyov, a leading member of the Communist Party, told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that plans are already being laid to use so-called "clone parties' to siphon votes away from the opposition. And once the Duma passes legislation easing party registration rules, this task will be easier -- and will be done under the shroud of democratizing the system.
"The ruling party cannot hope to win the forthcoming elections under the existing rules anymore. Its decline has gone too far," Solovyov said. "United Russia will permit establishment of 20 to 30 puppet parties to strip its genuine political adversaries of voters."
But while Tolyatti provides one model for how things may go locally, a less regime-friendly one appears to be developing in Yaroslavl, where a real opposition figure appears poised to win an April 1 runoff for mayor.
Yevgeny Urlashov -- a maverick city council deputy who is supported by the Communists, A Just Russia, Yabloko, and Vladimir Milov's Democratic Choice organization -- took more than 40 percent of the vote in the first round of that city's mayoral election on March 4, far outpacing United Russia's candidate, Yakov Yakushev, who won 27 percent.
WATCH A VIDEO OF MILOV CAMPAIGNING FOR URLASHOV:
In public opinion polls, Urlashov is way ahead, with more than 60 percent of voters saying they will support him in the second round.
And the local authorities appear to be pulling out all the stops to stave off electoral disaster.
Incumbent Mayor Viktor Volonchunas, for example, has appointed Yakushev as his first deputy in charge of socioeconomic issues, construction, and land use -- a clear attempt to raise his profile with voters just weeks before the election.
The opposition is also suspicious about the timing of the runoff, which is taking place nearly a month after the first round instead of the customary two weeks.
The local blogosphere is rife with speculation that the unusually long break between rounds is an attempt to buy time to find a pretext to disqualify Urlashov.
Whether the authorities take that route and risk a potential backlash, or let Urlashov win in the hopes of boxing him in and discrediting him in office, is still unclear.
And with a fresh round of local elections months away, it is also unclear whether Tolyatti or Yaroslavl represent the shape of things to come.
-- Brian Whitmore