SOCHI, Russia – Vladislav Funtyakov, a member of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, is losing the faith. When the Sochi city councilman tried to enter the mayoral race in his hometown, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, his application was rejected.
“We have democracy only in words,” said Funtyakov, 41, who has been on the city council for more than eight years. “My platform was not to lie, not to steal and to make Sochi a town first and foremost for its residents.”
The number of candidates for the April 26 vote has shrunk to six from an original 26 contenders. Some would-be candidates, such as millionaire Alexander Lebedev and ballerina Anastasia Volochkova, have been struck from the ballot for technicalities. Others, like Boris Nemtsov, who was first deputy prime minister in a previous government, have had leaflets confiscated and rallies banned by the police.
Local authorities are whittling down the list so that United Russia’s designated candidate becomes the only real choice, said Communist Party candidate Yury Dzaganiya. Anatoly Pakhomov, the ruling party incumbent, was appointed acting mayor three months ago by Putin ally Alexander Tkachyov, governor of Krasnodar region.
“For the federal government it’s crucial that the mayor is completely loyal,” said Natalya Zubarevich, head of regional studies at Moscow’s Independent Institute for Social Policy. She called the election a “classic PR campaign” aimed at creating the impression that Russia was a democracy.
Putin, 56, who personally pitched Sochi’s candidacy to the International Olympic Committee, is using the Games to showcase Russia’s return to the world stage after the demise of the Soviet Union. The prime minister said last month in Sochi that he hoped the next mayor, who will open the Games, wouldn’t use the Olympic project “to realize his own ambitions.”
Russia’s mayors are the last directly elected government executive officials apart from the president after Putin eliminated gubernatorial elections in 2004. President Dmitry Medvedev, 43, last week called the Sochi race a “full-fledged political battle” that is good for Russian democracy.
Nemtsov, a Sochi native who served in government under then-President Boris Yeltsin, kicked off the race in March when he announced his campaign to free locals from being held “hostage” by Olympic preparations.
“They’ve created an atmosphere of fear,” Nemtsov, 49, said about Putin loyalists. “They don’t realize the high level of opposition. They overestimate their own power and underestimate the people.”
Behind in Polls
While no independent poll has been published, Nemtsov’s own surveys showed Pakhomov leading him, 35 percent to 20 percent, earlier this month. A candidate must win more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff between the top two vote-getters.
An outsider visiting the seaside town of 400,000, with its back to the Caucasus Mountains, would hardly suspect a campaign is under way. No posters plaster the streets and the evening news shows residents praising Pakhomov after touring a bakery or commissioning a bus stop. The city prohibits most rallies, so Nemtsov walks through town to meet with voters.
The law requiring city-run media to give candidates free air time and newspaper space is being followed, said Yury Rykov, the head of the Sochi electoral commission.
In January, Pakhomov, a 48-year-old former mayor of the Krasnodar region town of Anapa, became the fourth out-of-town mayor appointed by the local governor in less than a year.
His spokeswoman, Galina Snimshchikova, turned down three interview requests. She first said Russian law prevented him from speaking to the press, then that he was traveling in a remote district without mobile phone coverage, and finally that he was busy “filling the information vacuum on the Olympics.”
The February 2014 Winter Games loom over any discussion of the future of Sochi, which needs 59 kilometers (40 miles) of new highways, resurfacing of existing roads and an overhaul of its Soviet-era sewage and electricity systems. The number of world-class hotel rooms needs to more than double to 46,000 to accommodate the tourists who will throng the city in five years.
Nemtsov suggests moving some Olympic events to other Russian cities as a way of preserving Sochi’s environment and avoiding the resettlement of thousands of residents.
Communist Dzaganiya, 61, said the revolving door at city hall reflects a “crisis at the top” of Putin’s so-called power vertical, the system he built in eight years as president.
The mayoral election won’t be fair because the authorities will use early voting as a way to fix results, Dzaganiya said. The Communists will team up with Nemtsov to send monitors to each of the city’s more than 200 polling stations.
“We haven’t had serious falsifications here,” said election chief Rykov. Commission members take “master classes” on ensuring fairness, he said.
Rykov defended the decision to strike candidates such as Funtyakov from the ballot. “It may seem like a formality, but the law clearly defines what’s acceptable,” he said.
Funtyakov said he won’t appeal the decision, made on the grounds that his birth date was missing from a document, because he can’t expect a fair and timely ruling by the local courts.
“The governor keeps on leading people in by the hand and everyone is supposed to vote for them,” he said. “If a mayor comes in with a collective-farm mentality, that’s the way he’ll manage the city.”