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Future of opposition figurehead Navalny in focus at Moscow’s mayoral election

August 13, 2013, 17:01 UTC+3 Zamyatina Tamara

MOSCOW, August 13 (Itar-Tass) - Moscow’s mayoral election race has entered the active phase. On Monday evening, five of the six candidates for the post clashed in televised debates on the Moscow-24 round-the-clock news channel. The voting is due on September 8. The sole candidate who refused to participate in the show was acting mayor Sergei Sobyanin.

Last June, Sobyanin unexpectedly tendered his resignation to pave the way for an early election and at once nominated himself a candidate for another term. This political manouevre had a solid reason behind it. In the wake of the amendments to the Constitution, the heads of all constituent territories of Russia have been appointed by the Kremlin over the past ten years. The latest changes allow regions to hold direct elections. Sobyanin, whose powers were to expire in 2015, wants to be elected by the people of Moscow, and not be just an appointee.

Before being moved to the Russian capital, Sobyanin had held the post of the Tyumen region’s governor - a region of Siberia rich in oil and gas. Then he was chief of President Vladimir Putin’s staff and a while later took over the Russian government’s staff in the capacity of a deputy prime minister. In contrast to this impressive record, none of his five rivals in the forthcoming mayoral elections has ever been in command of a municipality or even an industrial enterprise.

Russia’s multi-millionaire, chief of the OAO Polus Zoloto gold mining company and leader of the Civic Platform party Mikhail Prokhorov could have offered strong competition to Sobyanin. But the big business tycoon featuring high on the Forbes list of the wealthiest Russians decided to quit because he had no time or wish to pull out his financial assets from other countries as a newly-adopted law requires. In the September 8 election, Sobyanin will be competing with the Communist Party’s deputy leader Ivan Melnikov, leader of the oppositional party Yabloko Sergei Mitrokhin, oppositional politician Alexei Navalny, leader of the A Just Russia party Nikolai Levichev and State Duma member from the Liberal Democrat Party Mikhail Degtyaryov.

In the televised debates they spent almost an hour to criticize Sergei Sobyanin for corruption in Moscow, for the collapsing transport infrastructure and for an influx of illegal migrants. Each of the candidates for Moscow’s mayor promised to promptly address all of these problems, to launch large-scale social housing programmes and to support retirees.

Oddly enough, most leading electioneering experts say the core intrigue of the forthcoming election is not the outcome of the voting as such (to them it looks quite predetermined), but the future of fiery opposition activist Alexey Navalny. Opinion polls predict Sergei Sobyanin will emerge the winner in the first round with a majority of votes ranging from 54 percent to 72 percent.

Alexey Navalny’s chances look far more modest. He may count on 15 percent at the most. However, the attention of observers and the media is riveted to his personality. A blogger who has won wide acclaim both inside the country exposing corruption by Russian officials and legislators, Navalny has put on the internet quite a few documents about foreign properties belonging to high-placed members of the Russian establishment. Several senior officials have fallen victim to Navalny’s criticism already. All had to resign.

In the meantime, the prosecutor-general’s office has unearthed some compromising evidence against Navalny himself. A criminal case over the theft of timber at the Kirovles enterprise in the town of Kirov, where Navalny had been an adviser to the governor, ended with a five-year jail sentence. The defence has appealed the verdict, and Navalny has received a chance to participate in the election of Moscow’s new mayor.

On Monday, the prosecutor-general’s office came out with fresh charges against Navalny. He is suspected of getting money for his election campaign from abroad.

“It has been established that through the electronic payment system Yandex.Dengi a total of 300,000 foreign legal entities and individuals, as well as anonymous donors from 46 countries around the world (including the United States, Finland, Britain, Switzerland and Canada) using 347 IP addresses, sent money to Navalny’s electronic wallet to be used for his mayoral election campaign in Moscow,” the prosecutor's office said in a message addressed to the interior ministry. The PGO urged the police to indict Navanly on criminal charges. If the accusations prove well-founded, the Moscow Election Commission may bar Navalny from the election. Both Yandex and Navalny’s election team have dismissed the PGO’s charges.

In the meantime, observers are curious about the reasons that prompted the PGO to arrive at the conclusion that several of Navalny’s supporters were getting money from abroad.

“The modern system of information security systems as it is, getting any information about the operation of networks and services of large companies, such as banks or payment systems, is practically impossible from the outside,” the director of the Hosting Community group of companies, Pavel Vasiliev, has told the daily Vedomosti.

The deputy general director of the Political Technologies Center, Boris Makarenko, believes that the “ongoing campaign against Navalny may propel his personality to a different political level.”

“If he becomes leader of the Russian opposition depends on the court’s verdict on the appeal filed in the Kirovles case. If Navalny is to go to jail for five years, he will be stripped of the right to be a candidate in elections of any level.” In that case, he may have to follow in Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s footsteps, he argues.

Makarenko believes “the authorities should give thought to how honest and transparent the rules of the current election campaign will look to the Muscovites.”