MOSCOW -- According to a recent Levada Center poll, 40 percent of Muscovites believe the campaign for the city's September 8 mayoral election will be "dirty, featuring slander, falsification, [and] abuse of administrative resources."
The events of the last couple of weeks seem to be proving them right, as polling data also shows the possibility of a second round of voting is growing.
On August 13, police forcibly burst into a Moscow apartment and detained three activists of a group called the Navalny Brothers. The raid was conducted on the initiative of A Just Russia party candidate Nikolai Levichev, who claimed the group was illegally campaigning for rival Aleksei Navalny. Levichev himself and several other A Just Russia Duma deputies were present during the raid.
Navalny's campaign issued a statement saying the group has no connection with the campaign and that Russian law gives citizens the right to promote candidates in elections. But if the Moscow Election Commission determines that Navalny's campaign was financing the group, it could potentially disqualify him from the race.
Navalny's denial of any connection did not impress Oleg Pakholkov, a State Duma deputy from A Just Russia, who participated in the raid against the apartment.
"I think this is just a legal trick by Mr. Navalny, denying a connection to these people," Pakholkov said. "I think this isn't very nice -- one day a person publicly denies one group, tomorrow, another group. And it isn't just because they leave someone out in the cold. It is just that publicly denying one of one's own offices -- it just seems, I'll say it again, not nice and not very managerial. He's trying to avoid all responsibility, even a warning from election officials."
On August 14, Navalny fired back on his blog, saying, "There is no candidate Levichev -- he is just a front for [acting Mayor] Sergei Sobyanin, helping him win the election."
Sobyanin is a close ally of President Vladimir Putin and a leader of the ruling United Russia party, although he is technically running as an independent.
Possibility Of Second Round
According to a poll conducted this week by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion, Sobyanin is leading with about 53 percent support, trailed by Navalny with about 8 percent. All other candidates are polling at 1 percent or less.
A Levada Center poll late in July showed 53 percent of likely voters supporting Sobyanin -- down from 61 percent in June -- but only 5 percent supporting Navalny, up from 3 percent in June.
Observers say, however, that the polls could be underestimating Navalny's support. The Levada poll, for example, says that 33 percent of likely voters remain undecided.
Given the high number of undecideds, analysts say the possibility that the election will go to a second round -- which happens if no candidate polls at least 50 percent -- seems to be growing. Although there are six candidates in the race, all eyes are on Sobyanin and Navalny.
The Navalny Brothers incident is just the latest salvo.
Earlier this month, Navalny published information about an apartment in an elite, downtown Moscow building that is registered in the name of Sobyanin's 16-year-old daughter. Navalny estimated that the 308-square-meter apartment is worth more than $5 million, six times more than Sobyanin has declared as income since 2003.
Sobyanin has said the apartment was legally privatized by the presidential affairs administration and that it was included on his mandatory asset declarations.
Duma Deputy Oleg Shein -- also of the A Just Russia faction -- has filed a complaint with prosecutors asking them to investigate how the apartment was privatized. Shein told RFE/RL he suspected the privatization may have been illegal.
"Only three categories of people have the right to receive socially subsidized housing without waiting," Shein said. "They are orphans, people with serious illnesses such as tuberculosis, epilepsy, or leprosy, and, finally, people whose previous housing was destroyed in a natural disaster such as a flood or an earthquake. I asked the prosecutors of the city of Moscow to determine which of these three categories Sergei Sobyanin belongs to."
Prosecutors have one month to formally respond to Shein's request.
Navalny also published a blog post about an elite apartment in St. Petersburg owned by Sobyanin's eldest daughter. Sobyanin, in response, noted that she is 25 and that he has no connection to the apartment. His daughter's husband has said he paid for the apartment, although Navalny says there is no evidence that he has ever earned enough to buy the 205-square-meter apartment worth more than 100 million rubles ($3 million).
Shortly after Navalny made the apartment accusations, the Investigative Committee -- responding to a request from Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- began looking into allegations that Navalny's campaign received contributions from foreign citizens.
Investigators claimed that electronic transfers from foreign IP addresses had been sent to Navalny through the online Yandex.Money payment system.
Asya Melkumova, a spokeswoman for Yandex.Money, said on August 12 that this information was meaningless.
"The foreign IP addresses mentioned in the prosecutor's statement may only point to the Internet settings used by someone who makes a payment," she said. "The IP address says nothing about one's citizenship. Any Russian citizen who is away from Russia can send money -- not only through Yandex.Money but also through the Internet-banking system of any Russian bank."
She also said the Investigative Committee had not asked Yandex.Money for any information about transfers to Navalny's account.
For his part, Navalny sees the attacks on him as a sign that Sobyanin and the current ruling elite are getting nervous about his campaign and the possibility of a second round.
"It is absolutely clear to us why this happened. All polls now suggest that a runoff election is practically inevitable," Navalny says. "We understand that the Kremlin and Sobyanin are in panic and they fear a runoff election. So it was just a matter of what kind of excuse they would cook up to start yet another wave of negative news on national television."
Navalny was convicted of embezzlement last month and sentenced to five years in prison. The case was widely viewed as politically motivated and observers noted numerous procedural violations in the trial.
Navalny is currently appealing the conviction, but if the court's verdict is upheld he will be ineligible to continue his campaign or hold elected office. The appeals court is expected to rule before the end of August.
Written in Prague by Robert Coalson, based on reporting in Moscow by Natalya Dzhanpoladova and Arslan Saidov of RFE/RL's Russian Service