From Comic to Opposition Candidate?

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The fate of the governor of the Altai region, Mikhail Yevdokimov, hangs by a thread. After the Altai Council of People's Deputies passed a vote of no confidence on March 31, his future is in the hands of President Vladimir Putin. If Putin wants, he can fire him, and if he doesn't, he can stay.

Yevdokimov said he would happily rely on the president's wisdom and even wrote an official request asking to be reconfirmed as governor. On one hand, this meant that Yevdokimov was backing down. Not that long before his request, he insisted that he had no intention of writing to Putin because the mandate he had received only a year before was more than enough for him. On the other hand, his request was a kind of challenge to the president, tossing the ball in his court and forcing him to take on the responsibility of deciding the governor's fate.

The president did not take on the responsibility. And Kremlin officials advised Yevdokimov not to send a request now but to wait for a year or so, until April 2006.

The election of Yevdokimov to the post of Altai governor last March was a scandal. The former governor of the region, Alexander Surikov, had always been considered "red" but by the end of his term, he had completely remade himself politically. He supported United Russia during the 2003 State Duma elections and publicly announced his support of Putin and of the policies of his Cabinet, even though some gentle shots at liberal ministers like Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Economic Development and Trade German Gref are part of the rules of the game for a sincere Putinist.

Surikov ran for another term as an independent candidate and in the second round of voting enjoyed the support of all political parties from SPS and Yabloko to the Communists, including, of course, United Russia. The only party that refused to back Surikov was the Agrarian Party, and the leader of the party's left wing, Nikolai Kharitonov, even called on the region's voters to vote for Yevdokimov.

The first round of voting came on March 14, 2004. Yevdokimov won 39 percent of the votes and -- along with Surikov, who won 47 percent -- made it to the second round. Between the first and second rounds, millions of fliers in support of Surikov were printed, and billboards featuring Surikov with kids or with beaming students sprung up across the region. Yevdokimov was called an alcoholic suffering from incontinence when on a bender and was said to have diabetes as well. All attempts on the part of Yevdokimov, who was given zero access to the airwaves, to meet and greet voters ended in failure. The village houses of culture he would travel to would inevitably be closed for repairs.

The incumbent even brought out the big gun of administrative resources, the president himself. On April 2, 2004, regional television broadcast Putin's meeting with his envoy to the Far East Federal District, Leonid Drachevsky, at which Surikov was also present. Programs showed the president saying to Surikov, "I understand you are an active, working governor. And I understand who the next governor should be."

Yevdokimov also played the president card. He reminded voters of how Putin had spent his vacation in August 2003 in the Altai Mountains and had met with Yevdokimov. He bragged that they had had a nice chat in the bathhouse and that Yevdokimov had announced his plans to run for governor. The president did not have any objections, he said. However, a friendly steam bath with Putin hardly outweighed the president's open approval of Surikov.

Yet the ultimate weapon of Russian elections -- canceling a candidate's registration -- was not used. Perhaps Surikov's team was nervous that their constituents would vote for "against all" if the governor's main opponent was knocked out of the race. Or perhaps they thought this would be overkill based on their candidate's relatively strong results during the first round.

Yet on April 4, 2004, Yevdokimov won 49.5 percent of the votes in the second round, and Surikov only 46.3 percent.

Naturally, Yevdokimov was backed by influential commercial organizations based in Moscow and Siberia, and they played a role in the victory. At the very least, Yevdokimov had no shortage of cash. However, the battle was not one of Yevdokimov's big budget versus Surikov's huge one, but between popular protest, as represented by Yevdokimov, and the administrative resources of Surikov.

Last year's Altai election thus demonstrated that without any popular politicians, protest voters are willing to vote for anybody, even a television personality. Practically the entire gamut of administrative resources was employed against Yevdokimov, including presidential involvement but excluding barring him from the race. But he won the election anyway.

This, in part, speaks of potential untapped resources that could help Russia's liberal camp. First and foremost, it promises possible success for Boris Shenderovich, a popular satirical writer and former television-show host who is close to Yabloko. Shenderovich may end up heading the unified liberal party list for the 2007 State Duma elections. If he does well in 2007, he might just be up for challenging the "party of power," United Russia, in the presidential race in 2008. And Yevdokimov himself is a potential protest candidate for 2008. To turn from a potential opposition candidate into a real one, he only need to acquire the status of a martyr, of someone persecuted and oppressed by the regime.

If Putin were to remove Yevdokimov from his post now, those attempting to manage democracy would have mass protests on their hands, as large numbers of Altai residents would likely demonstrate in support of their popularly elected governor. Yevdokimov has not lost all of his supporters after being in power for a year, which was not a complete disaster, although far from triumphant. The regime's enemies would have a candidate for president, who would not have any of the idiosyncrasies of the right or the left and who would not need all that much promotion.

This is all possible, despite the fact that Yevdokimov himself has proclaimed his personal ties and even profound love for Putin. After all, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko once referred to former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma as a father figure.

The next regular session of the Altai regional council is scheduled for April 28, and Yevdokimov will report his accomplishments as governor, a report he did not deign to give deputies on March 31.

The Kremlin, for its part, did not recommend the council's leadership bring up the no-confidence vote again.

Vladimir Pribylovsky is president of the Panorama think tank. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.