Russia's troubled campaign trail
Experts say the Kremlin is trying to engineer a loyal parliament even before Russians go to the polls Sunday.
Both the competing candidates are popular. And their race for a parliamentary seat in Russia's election Sunday was expected to be close.
But the political playing field in this Siberian campaign - and in many others around the country - is far from even. Experts say this is the result of an effort by the Kremlin, using its vast "administrative resources," to engineer a loyal parliament before voting day.
The Kremlin-backed contender in the Tyumen race, Gennady Raikov, who used to run a massive Soviet defense factory and now heads the People's Party, campaigns with the confidence of a sure winner.
His chief opponent, though, Communist Party candidate Alexander Cherepanov, has been thrown off the ballot on an alleged violation and remains mired in a legal tangle of court appeals. He is among a growing number of candidates who have fallen victim to the latest campaign tactic in Russia: eliminating opponents through court and election commission challenges.
Mr. Cherepanov, now a local lawmaker, has been accused of using his official aide in his current post to help his campaign for national office.
"There was more democracy in the Soviet Union - even under Stalin - than there is now," says Cherepanov, who is awaiting a court ruling that could get him back on the ballot. "This is a clear use of 'administrative resources,' and shows a trend toward fascism in regional power in Russia."
Raikov, whose office wall features a large picture of himself with President Vladimir Putin, counters: "Of course, I have nothing to do with that myself." He adds that his opponent "would lose anyway."
Local elections officials insist they played it by the book, and point to the exact articles of the voluminous election law - the lines marked with a yellow highlighter - that they say required them to act.
The case in Tyumen - more than 1,000 miles east of Moscow - is far from unique, as Russians prepare to elect 450 Duma deputies and many local officials in this vast country with more than 94,500 polling stations spread across 11 time zones.
Putin's broad popularity means that United Russia, the self-styled "party of power" that he has endorsed, is expected to romp to victory in a lackluster election that has evoked little interest among the electorate.
With so little public scrutiny, and with sophisticated tactics and manipulations beginning to mature in Russia after a decade of post-Soviet democratic experience, European election monitors cried foul this week.
Improper use of administrative resources is "commonplace" and in "almost all instances the beneficiary has been United Russia," the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), notes in its latest interim report.
The OSCE notes a "clear bias in the state-owned media in support of United Russia and other pro-presidential parties," and that, "on occasion" there has been a "selective application of registration criteria."
The Communist Party - the chief opposition, with 110 Duma seats and an unbending quarter of popular support - "has experienced sustained public attacks" over alleged links to tycoons, the OSCE said, amid concerns of "unequal campaign opportunities."
It all adds up to a sanitary method of stealing the vote, critics say, so that pro-Kremlin forces can control the result while minimizing vote-rigging or blatant fraud on election day.
"These are technical methods to prevent people from winning when other ways can't be used," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank in Moscow. "There is one common thing in these cases: It is done to help the party of the authorities, and it is called 'managed democracy,' " he says, referring to the Kremlin's term for Russia's political system. "There is a soft form of biased coverage on TV and in the mass media," Mr. Pribylovsky says. "But there are also tough methods of excluding a candidate from the race and counting votes in the way authorities need."
Such methods felled Cherepanov, who "was not registered because [the Kremlin] wanted to clear the road for Raikov," Pribylovsky says. "He was blamed for using their aides in the preelection campaign. All deputies do the very same thing. I myself am an assistant to a deputy, and work for his campaign for free."
Cherepanov says he was warned last August by Tyumen leaders of United Russia that if he took on Raikov in constituency No. 179, he would be trumped in the courts. He has his views on who is behind his current woes.
"The [Tyumen] governor and the Kremlin, because the governor was surely given a command by the Kremlin, and he fulfills that command," Cherepanov says. "They have no interest in a deputy who speaks his mind.... I wouldn't be surprised if they try to liquidate opposition leaders entirely."
Cherepanov and another Tyumen candidate, Vadim Bondar of the Union of Right Forces, who was also excluded from the race because his aide allegedly worked on his campaign, are fighting back. They are encouraging their supporters to check the box "Against all candidates," to force a revote.
"Then maybe we will win. We are optimistic," Cherepanov says, that voters will change the path he says United Russia and its supporters like Raikov are taking.
"They smile in a nice way, they love dogs, but they are awful people," Cherepanov says. "Remember the films of the fascists? They loved dogs, and afterwards they shot children."
Raikov dismisses Cherepanov's views as a loser's rant. "All steps were taken to make these elections clean, to avoid dirty tricks and kompromat [compromising material] so that an honest political struggle could be held, for everyone to prove their convictions," says Raikov. "Unfortunately, to my greatest regret, the competition uses a lot of lies and kompromat. It's a natural consequence of building a democracy."
The local press is against him, Raikov says. "They said I voted against the anticorruption law, but I'm the author of it. How could I be against it?"
Raikov claims he has 10 times the support of Cherepanov, and that his People's Party - which now has 43 Duma seats, and votes in line with United Russia - is working to bring families from below the poverty line into the middle class.
"There are different opinions everywhere of what can be understood as 'administrative resources,' " says Pavel Baimatov, deputy of Tyumen's regional election commission - a 10-member body made up of people put forward by the political parties. The OSCE found that "lower-level commissions generally lack political balance."
"We should recognize the rights of all candidates, whatever party they belong to," says Mr. Baimatov, who flatly denies any Kremlin influence on the Tyumen group. Cherepanov was in "direct violation" of the law, he says, and "all violations of the law are serious for us."
The result of Cherepanov's "gross violation," says Raikov, smiling broadly, is a one-horse race, and a brighter future for his People's Party.
"I had a communist competitor," he says. "I lost him, and I'm very sorry I lost him. People would have seen who is who in this election," Raikov says. "Our party is only a couple of years old. In the next few years, we want to push out all our opponents."