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That Time (Long Ago) Nemtsov Ran For Mayor Of Sochi

Boris Nemtsov speaks to potential voters in Sochi on April 19, 2009.

The candidate stood before a tiny crowd at the foot of a mud-wet street in an obscure village on the edge of Sochi, a sprawling Russian city that stretches along the Black Sea shore and up into snowcapped mountains of the Caucasus.

He was a hometown boy trying to stage a political comeback in his native city 11 years after Russia's financial crisis pushed him out of his post as a deputy prime minister of Russia, an abrupt fall following a swift ascent that included more than five years as the reformist, whiz-kid governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region.

On that bright spring day he wore black boots, blue jeans, and a white button-down shirt that was not all that buttoned-up: Boris Nemtsov.

For much of the mid-1990s Nemtsov -- who was shot dead near the Kremlin on February 27, 2015 -- had been seen as one of the most likely potential successors to post-Soviet Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin.

His 16 months as a senior cabinet minister ended in August 1998 and he served a single four-year term in the lower house of parliament from 1999-2003 -- the end of his time in the State Duma coinciding, like that of several other liberals, with what opponents of Putin said were steps by the Kremlin to restrict rights and freedoms.

Now it was April 2009, and Nemtsov, 49, was running for mayor of Sochi, which is currently Russia's 37th-largest city, give or take a few, and back then was lower down the list.

Putin's Second Home

These days, Sochi is firmly associated with Putin. He was the driving force behind the city's successful bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics -- an achievement that was badly marred in the eyes of many by the revelations of a state-orchestrated doping program that helped the hosts top the medals table.

And Putin has made Sochi something like a second home -- or a third one, given that he is from St. Petersburg but governs from Moscow. He spends long periods of time at Bocharov Ruchei, an elaborate shoreline estate there, hosting foreign leaders in a setting even more isolated from scrutiny than the high-walled Kremlin.

But in 2009, at least to a Moscow-based reporter covering the mayoral election for the Associated Press, Putin's imprint on Sochi was not so strong. In fact, his stamp on Russia itself was impressed less deeply than it is now: this was before he made clear he would return to the presidency in 2012 and before the big protests -- and ensuing clampdown -- that his impending return helped incite.

Posters of Sochi mayoral candidate Boris Nemtsov
Posters of Sochi mayoral candidate Boris Nemtsov

So, if the mayoral race was a test for Nemtsov, it was also closely watched as a symbol of whether the Kremlin would change its ways under President Dmitry Medvedev, who had been formally handed the position less than a year earlier in a move that enabled Putin to avoid violating a constitutional limit of two straight presidential terms without going far: he became prime minister.

Medvedev was seen as more liberal than Putin, who had tightened control over electoral politics in his first two terms, in 2000-2008. He was from a younger generation than Putin and was famous for saying, in 2007, that "freedom is better than unfreedom."

How would that translate in the election in Sochi -- a contest that Medvedev, weeks before the ballot, said would bode well for "the electoral system and for democracy in our country" if it were genuinely competitive?

It wouldn't, according to Nemtsov as well as other critics of the Russian authorities, rights activists, and ordinary Sochi residents who said the odds were stacked heavily in favor of the ruling United Russia party candidate, acting Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov.

Acting Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov was the ruling United Russia party's candidate.
Acting Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov was the ruling United Russia party's candidate.

For one thing, about one-quarter of Sochi voters cast ballots early, many of them soldiers and students or teachers, doctors, and other government-paid workers who activists said were vulnerable to pressure to vote -- and to vote for the Kremlin favorite.

The campaign, too, appeared highly lopsided to a reporter covering it in the days ahead of the vote. Pakhomov dominated the airwaves, bathed in positive coverage, while Nemtsov was ignored or derided by channels connected to the state and said that TV stations, newspapers, and billboard companies refused to take paid advertising for his candidacy.

In real life, though, Pakhomov was barely visible, shunning stumping and arguing that he had no time to campaign because as acting mayor he had to run the city -- which had been awarded the 2014 Games in 2007, putting it under Putin's gaze and under the gun to build stadiums, roads, and other facilities and infrastructure from scratch.

Nemtsov, by contrast, campaigned with gusto. Faced with what he called a "total blackout, total censorship" of his campaign, he hit the streets, seemingly determined to tell the people that it didn't have to be Pakhomov's town or Putin's Russia.

In the western Sochi village where he spoke to a small crowd a few days before the vote, Nemtsov argued with a man who broke in to state loudly that Putin had brought order to Russia. "What order? Corruption, bureaucracy," he countered, accusing the man of being a paid heckler.

Sochi is big, encompassing four separate districts and a range of terrain, with a plethora of place names hinting of a hugely diverse history, harking back to people who settled there over the centuries -- some of them before Russia existed.

'Blatant Fraud And Falsification'

Nemtsov covered a lot of ground. Along with central Sochi and remote areas to the west or and up in the foothills, he pressed the flesh at a maze-like market that stands at the border with Georgia -- or, more specifically, with Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region.

Along the way, Nemtsov was splashed once with ammonia by assailants and said he faced various forms of harassment including being followed, seeing campaign workers detained, and having leaflets seized by police -- all tactics that have been used more recently against increasingly beleaguered Kremlin opponents including Aleksei Navalny, who today is Putin's most prominent foe.

"It's a dirty campaign even by very low Russian standards, because there's too much at stake," chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, a political ally who was at Nemtsov's side at some of the events in Sochi, said at the time.

In the end, Pakhomov was awarded the victory with 77 percent of the vote, with Nemtsov a distant second at less than 14 percent, according to the local election commission. Nemtsov challenged the official figures, calling it a case of "blatant fraud and falsification."

He said that exit polls conducted by his campaign pointed to a far closer race, indicating that he won about 35 percent of the votes cast on election day itself while Pakhomov received about 46 percent -- numbers that, if accurate for all the ballots cast, would have required a runoff election.

But the official results stood, as expected, and Pakhomov stayed on as mayor of Sochi for a decade, until August 2019.

Nemtsov's career in electoral politics did not end in his hometown: Four years after the vote there, he was elected to the legislature in the Yaroslavl region northeast of Moscow -- a mandate he held until he was shot dead on February 27, 2015.

Shortly after I returned to Moscow following the Sochi election, I was wondering out loud how the country might differ if it were governed by Nemtsov and his allies. A Russian acquaintance remarked that he did not know, but wished he had the chance to find out.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.