* Russia holding more than 4,600 local elections on Sunday
* Vote first test for Putin in regions since inauguration
* Five of Russia's 83 regional leaders will be elected
* But opposition says Kremlin has removed many candidates
By Gabriela Baczynska
VOSKRESENSK, Russia, Oct 12 Voskresensk, a
Soviet-era industrial town of billowing smokestacks famous for
turning out top ice hockey players, is an unlikely electoral
battleground for President Vladimir Putin and his ruling United
But the town, not far from Moscow, will hold a local
election this Sunday along with thousands of others in the first
real test of Putin's power in the regions since giant protests
against his rule convulsed Moscow this year and last.
The contest will see five of Russia's 83 powerful regional
governors elected for the first time in eight years though a
"filter" system will ensure the Kremlin still has a big say.
Putin, who returned to the presidency in May, abolished
elections for governors in 2004, but then President Dmitry
Medvedev, now prime minister, restored them after the first big
anti-Kremlin protest shook the country in December.
The rules may have changed but the opposition says the
results in more than 4,600 elections are likely to be the same
as in the past with pro-Putin candidates cementing the Kremlin's
increasingly tight grip over the regions. That is something that
Putin, who is famous for his vertical top-down system of power,
has pursued hard since he first became president in 2000.
"We're like children, sitting here discussing elections when
in fact the game is over," said Gennady Yegorov, one of six
would-be mayoral opponents in Voskresensk struck off the ballot
on procedural grounds.
Sitting in a basement office just off the town's Lenin
Square where a bright screen next to a statue of Vladimir Lenin
displays ads for the pro-Putin candidate, Yegorov, 52, is on a
hunger strike to protest against his predicament.
He says the race had already been decided and that Putin's
man is certain to win. Despite the fast and a yellowish bruise
he received in an unexplained beating on the street 10 days
before the election, his face is animated.
"Everything is being prepared to make the way for the one
and only candidate," Yegorov said of Alexander Kvardakov, the
Kremlin's preferred candidate, who like Putin himself used to
work for the country's FSB security service, the successor
organisation to the Soviet-era KGB.
Despite the protests against Putin, the biggest during his
nearly 13-year rule, the vote is likely to show how firm Putin's
grip on the world's largest country remains.
"It will be very difficult for the opposition as the levers
of authority are switched on at full power," said veteran human
rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 85. "There will be no
noticeable change. This is nothing but a game in an
authoritarian state, there is no question about free elections."
The demonstrations were sparked by suspicions of fraud in
favour of Putin's United Russia party in a parliamentary
election last December and exposed discontent with Putin among
many in the middle class in Moscow and a few other big cities.
But the protest movement made few inroads into the provinces
where living standards are generally much lower.
A TOWN LIKE ANY OTHER
Perched on the Moscow river, Voskresensk resembles tens of
thousands of other Soviet-era towns up and down Russia. Packed
with rows of drab apartment blocks, its skyline is dominated by
chimneys belching out smoke and its factories churn out
fertiliser, cement, and chemicals.
Kremlin opponents and analysts say Voskresensk is an example
of how the authorities are trying to forestall accusations of
flagrant fraud by removing threats before the polls even open.
Yegorov, of the opposition Just Russia party, says he was
such a threat and says he was robbed of victory in a previous
vote. Analysts said he was favourite to win Sunday's contest.
He said he was removed from the race because his campaign
fliers featured a photograph of the city for which he had no
However, the head of the Voskresensk electoral commission
said Yegorov's 15-year-old conviction for robbery and extortion
was also a factor. Yegorov said the charges were groundless and
that he had received a suspended sentence.
Another candidate, Sergei Alexeyev, says he too was kept off
the ballot. In his case, he had improperly entered the year 2012
on documents he had filed to the local election commission. It
was printed when it should have been handwritten.
"The ruling party has now learned to win with the use of
softer measures than falsifications," said Roman Udot, project
coordinator at Western-funded election monitoring group Golos.
"The tactic of dismissing candidates, not allowing them into
the race, helps them clear the field in advance and then ... on
election day itself everything looks more or less fine."
The removal of six candidates rankles with some voters.
"All in all it's a complete fake of an election," said
Yelena Dyachkova, who sells sweets at a stall in a shopping mall
in Voskresensk. "I am not sure who to vote for now that they
have dismissed the candidate I wanted to back: Yegorov."
Voskresensk's story is being repeated elsewhere.
In the Ryazan region, beyond Voskresensk on the road from
Moscow, a candidate who looked set to challenge the governor
abruptly withdrew from the race last month, reportedly in
exchange for a promise of a parliamentary seat.
In the Bryansk region, the election was nearly scrapped
after a court struck the governor off the ballot and two of the
other three candidates withdrew, sparking speculation they were
rewarded for doing so to prevent a Communist from winning.
Such clumsy choreography may backfire, but analysts say
Kremlin-backed candidates will have no trouble in the other
three regions electing governors - Amur, Belgorod and Novgorod.
Few of the leaders of the street protests are seeking
election. An exception is Yevgeniya Chirikova who is running for
mayor in the Moscow suburb of Khimki but a poll published on
Oct. 3 said she would get 11 percent, far behind the acting
mayor backed by United Russia.
If she were to win, the authorities could use the state's
purse strings to make it hard for her to govern. The same goes
for any Kremlin foe coming to power in a city, town or region.
"The economic hierarchy is a very strong lever to keep
mayors and governors in line," said Leonid Volkov, an opposition
activist and city council member in Yekaterinburg in the Urals.
"You win and then they force you to ... play by their rules,
or jail you - or you become a living example of an ineffective
and bad mayor," he said.