Mayoral race in Russian city a test for Putin and Medvedev
Vote to show how serious leaders are about open system
SOCHI, Russia - Foes of the Kremlin rarely get a chance to run for office in Russia, so liberal opposition leader Boris Nemtsov's campaign in this resort city's mayoral election today has tested the willingness of President Dmitry Medvedev to open up the system.
In a recent campaign foray, Nemtsov, wearing faded blue jeans and black cowboy boots, clambered out of a van and bounded over to a few voters gathered on a street in Sochi, which will host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Nemtsov listened to pointed questions from pensioners, joked with men, and then argued with a man who insisted Prime Minister Vladimir Putin brought order to Russia.
"What order? Corruption, bureaucracy!" Nemtsov said, calling his accuser a government-paid heckler. "I'm asking you to stop lying."
Anyone challenging the candidates fielded by Putin's United Russia party must struggle just to get on the ballot, and Nemtsov's participation has added attention to the country's most prominent election since Medvedev succeeded Putin as president a year ago.
Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, provincial governor, and national lawmaker, is the best-known of the six candidates. The election is being watched as a barometer of just how serious Medvedev is about making Russia a more open country.
The answer, Nemtsov and other opposition leaders say, is very little - at least in an election as crucial as this one for Medvedev's predecessor, Putin.
The mayoral contest is one that Putin and his party can't afford to lose - certainly not to Nemtsov, an outspoken critic who during the campaign called for moving some Olympic events to other Russian cities.
Nemtsov says he was followed, his campaign workers detained, and his leaflets seized by police. TV stations, newspapers and outdoor media companies refused to take paid campaign advertising, and at one point assailants splashed him with ammonia.
He and others say the Kremlin schemed to ensure the victory of United Russia's candidate, acting Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov, in a race for which there have been no independent polls.
In recent days, television channels aired a tape purporting to show Nemtsov taking money in exchange for his support for shifting the 2014 Games to South Korea, an allegation he adamantly denied.
Nemtsov said the attacks show the government feared he might win. "The authorities are deadly scared of my participation," he said.