Yevgeny Roizman, a political maverick and mayor of Russia’s fourth-largest city, doesn’t hedge when assessing his electoral chances in his region’s upcoming gubernatorial election -- if, of course, he could get on the ballot.
“I’d win, plain and simple,” Roizman, who defeated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party in 2013 to become mayor of the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, said in an interview with RFE/RL’s Russian Service this week.
But voters in Roizman’s native Sverdlovsk region won’t have a chance to cast their ballots for the 54-year-old politician in the gubernatorial election, one of 16 slated to be held in Russia on September 10 ahead of a March 18 presidential vote that Putin is expected to enter and win.
Roizman and politicians in other regions say they are being kept off the ballot thanks to a legal mechanism known as the “municipal filter” that critics say is being exploited to weed out potentially strong challengers to Kremlin-backed candidates.
The provision, introduced after Dmitry Medvedev brought back direct gubernatorial elections toward the end of his presidency in 2012, stipulates that would-be candidates in those races must collect signatures from between 5 and 10 percent of local lawmakers.
The Kremlin undertook a broader tightening of its control over Russia’s political landscape after mass 2011-12 protests in Moscow over Putin’s return to the presidency and parliamentary elections denounced by critics as rigged.
With the ruling United Russia party dominating local legislatures across the country, gathering the necessary signatures has been a major barrier for opposition candidates and other potential challengers to Kremlin-loyal regional elites, analysts say.
Proponents of the screening process say it prevents droves of marginal candidates from cluttering the ballot. Roizman, however, said that it has been used in the Sverdlovsk region to allow only weak candidates to run against incumbent Yevgeny Kuivashev, whom Putin appointed acting governor in April pending the upcoming election.
“They cleared the entire field. There’s not a single strong challenger, not a single strong candidate was even allowed to get close,” Roizman said of the race. “They weren’t given a chance to participate. They just weren’t allowed. I tried but became convinced that the municipal filter is insurmountable. Those are the rules of the game now.”
Roizman’s critics have accused him of not making a serious effort to gather signatures and get on the ballot.
“It’s difficult for me to believe that the ruthless Mr. Roizman -- a senior official, a statesman, the head of a major city who has certain administrative resources -- as a sort of weak little victim hounded by the regime,” Ella Pamfilova, the head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, said in an interview with the Russian business daily RBK earlier this month.
But Roizman’s criticism of the municipal candidate filter was backed up this week by a new study published by a think tank founded by former Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, a longtime Putin ally. The study, released August 14, found that the mechanism in its current form “makes true alternative choices practically impossible in an absolute majority of cases.”
“Many potential candidates with a high recognition level and deep electoral experience effectively aren’t participating in the electoral process,” the authors write, adding that the screening process is also used by regional elites to register only “fake” candidates who present no real challenge.
The analysis concludes that “uncompetitive” gubernatorial elections were the exception in 2004, the year Putin canceled direct elections of regional heads following the terrorist attack on a school in the southern Russian city of Beslan.
“Now competitive races have become the exception,” the authors write.
Pamfilova said in her interview with RBK that the filter mechanism was “cynically” exploited by regional elites to keep one strong candidate -- Vyacheslav Markhayev, a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament with the Communist Party -- off the ballot in Russia’s Buryatia region.
In the Perm region, two candidates seen as possible strong opponents to acting Governor Maksim Reshetnikov, a former senior Moscow city official, had their candidacies rejected over the issue of signatures.
One of those aspiring candidates, Konstantin Okunev, published a video appeal to Putin last month saying the filter was being manipulated by local elites to keep out candidates who are “uncomfortable” for them.
“Gubernatorial elections are being turned into a farce, a clown show,” Okunev said.
Sergei Kiriyenko, the first deputy chief of Putin’s administration who oversees domestic politics, cautiously said last month that the provision could be tweaked. “If it simply turns into a means of keeping [people] off [the ballot], then it requires revision,” the daily Kommersant reported.
Nikolai Petrov, an expert on Russia’s regions at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, told RFE/RL that eliminating or altering the municipal filter mechanism would make little difference in the competitiveness of gubernatorial elections unless the political situation changes in Russia.
The Kremlin, he said, was interested in giving regional elections a veneer of competitiveness in 2013, when opposition leader Aleksei Navalny finished second in the Moscow mayoral race, capturing around 27 percent of the vote, according to official results.
But since Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, “the situation changed dramatically,” Petrov said.
“The Kremlin doesn’t need competitive elections, doesn’t need a high turnout in these elections. It needs the elections to be conducted quietly and with little fanfare,” Petrov said.
Roizman, who had sought to run on the ticket of the liberal Yabloko party but was rejected by the regional election commission on the grounds that he failed to submit the necessary paperwork, insists that he was kept off the ballot “precisely because I would win.”
Some political analysts are skeptical.
“I think Yevgeny Roizman had no chance to win, but he had a chance to achieve a good result,” Aleksandr Kynev, one of the authors of the report published by Kudrin’s think tank, said in an interview with RFE/RL. “I think he had a chance to make it to a runoff. I think that would be realistic.”
Roizman said there’s only one way to test his confidence: “Let me run.”
With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service