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Novocherkassk-2010 Around the Corner

The regional elections on Sunday could prove to be a milestone in terms of shaping the future political landscape.

While past elections saw the birth of new parties, now they increasingly see the death of old ones. The Yabloko party failed to register in the two regional legislatures where it still has representation, meaning that these elections will mark its final departure from the political scene.

Ever since the direct elections of governors were annulled in 2004, elections for the mayors of regional capitals have become the main arena for political competition. At the same time, this is where the most blatant violations occur, leading to protests from local residents.

It is very possible that Sunday’s mayoral election in Irkutsk is the leading candidate for a  post-election protest, and the authorities seem to be doing everything in their power to turn this into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The new governor of the Irkutsk region, Dmitry Mezentsev, a St. Petersburg native who was nominated for the gubernatorial post by President Dmitry Medvedev in June 2009, led a campaign to send the Irkutsk mayor back to Moscow. He was replaced on an interim basis by Sergei Serebrennikov, the mayor of Bratsk, an aluminum and hydroelectric center that, while part of the Irkutsk region, is still a 90-minute flight from the capital. What’s more, Serebrennikov is considered to have close ties to aluminum oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who is not very popular among Siberians. It is therefore no surprise that polls show Serebrennikov with only half the voter support enjoyed by fellow United Russia politicians native to the Irkutsk region.

Neither should it be a surprise that a local court disqualified the most popular mayoral candidate from the race only 10 days before elections over an alleged discrepancy in the signature list required for registration. In the West, signature lists are required to cull out candidates lacking sufficient popular support. In Russia, signature lists are all too often used to eliminate the most popular candidates.

The Kremlin’s efforts are increasingly turning elections into no-confidence votes, particularly amid an economic crisis and high dissatisfaction with the authorities. The Kremlin is beginning to conduct itself in such a way that practically anybody can beat their preferred candidates, not unlike how many Communist Party candidates were swept out during the first multiparty elections during the late perestroika years. It is not so much that there are strong alternative candidates to choose from as that people are ready to vote for just about anyone besides United Russia candidates.

The authorities are using exactly the same tactics in these elections as they employed last fall. And despite Medvedev’s assurances to the contrary, widespread use of administrative resources continues, and opposition candidates are denied participation in elections. But society has changed. People were visibly angered by the widespread fraud in the last elections, and the general mood for protest is stronger now than before. Medvedev risks losing face in these elections. And while he already has been discredited in the West, now he risks being discredited among Russians.

The Novocherkassk-2010 scenario could be sparked by the results of Sunday’s elections — not with the economic collapse of a single-industry town like Novocherkassk in 1962, but by the likelihood that there will be another round of fraudulent elections. It is telling that many regions are already planning protest rallies for March 20, a week after elections.

Nikolai Petrov is a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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