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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reforms Face Test in Nizhny Novgorod Election

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Central Russia -- When the people of this region go to the polls Sunday to elect a new governor, they will also be passing their verdict on Russia's market economy. That verdict may turn out to be a thumbs-down.


Under former governor Boris Nemtsov, the Nizhny Novgorod region, and its capital city of the same name, became an internationally known laboratory for economic reform. Now, as first deputy prime minister and the new golden boy of Russia's political elite, Nemtsov is implementing those reforms on a national scale.


But in the birthplace of those reforms, not all voters have a rosy view of the legacy left by Nemtsov. With discontent on the rise, Ivan Sklyarov, Nemtsov's anointed successor and mayor of the regional capital, has a fight on his hands to beat back a challenge from Communist Gennady Khodyrev, 54.


A Communist victory would be a stinging blow to the prestige of the government and its market-oriented reform team, headed by Nemtsov and First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais.


"The significance of the result of these elections is this," said Khodyrev, the former Communist Party boss in the region. "Either the myth of reform in Nizhny Novgorod is preserved intact, or we will open the eyes of Russia and our friends from abroad as to what is really happening here."


According to an independent poll of 765 voters conducted last week, Sklyarov was supported by 51 percent of those polled, while Khodyrev trailed with 33 percent. Television journalist Nina Zvereva led the rest of the field with 9 percent.


But there are signs that Sklyarov is in trouble. One observer who has spoken with Sklyarov strategists says their internal polling shows his lead shrinking, and described the atmosphere at campaign headquarters as one of panic.


Sklyarov's support is being eroded by three rival democratic challengers, who claim that as a former senior Communist Party official, Sklyarov does not have the democratic credentials to succeed Nemtsov.


Nemtsov himself gave Sklyarov a lukewarm endorsement, saying that under Khodyrev's rule the region was "a gloomy, stick-in-the-mud place, a city closed to foreigners, poor roads, food rationing, glum expressions on peoples' faces." Nemtsov's wife, Raisa, dealt Sklyarov a body blow by publicly backing Zvereva.


"Sklyarov was never a democrat," said Pyotr Sudakov, campaign chief for Sergei Speransky, another of the democratic candidates. "At the time of privatization, everyone started to paint themselves as democrats because back then, it was a way to get access to the feeding trough."


The mayor's campaign suffered another blow last week when Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, traveled to Nizhny Novgorod to give his support to Khodyrev.


Scenting victory, the Communist Party has sent in its heavy hitters. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov has campaigned in Nizhny Novgorod twice this month, and more than 40 State Duma deputies have been drafted to help with the Khodyrev campaign.


In an interview Wednesday, Sklyarov, 49, said he was still confident of victory, but he was clearly rattled by the forces massing against him. "There are certain difficulties connected to the fact that everyone has taken up arms against one candidate: the Communists, Zhirinovsky's people, the pseudo-democrats," he said. "They are all carrying out a not-altogether dignified type of campaign."


On Raisa Nemtsov's support for a rival candidate, he said: "I have to say that I regret that decision. It doesn't help him or his wife. But in no way does it affect my relations with ... Boris."


Sklyarov is taking no chances. Backed by the big businesses that prospered under Nemtsov, his campaign team has plastered the city with color posters of their candidate, and local television stations have been airing clips praising Sklyarov's achievements as mayor.


Khodyrev's campaign team accuses Sklyarov of using his power as mayor to run a dirty-tricks campaign against his rivals. In one incident, they said, a local company pledged its support to Khodyrev and the next day was subjected to a surprise raid by the tax police. A campaign staffer said the company was fined 29 million rubles ($5,000) after inspectors discovered a sack of sugar that had not been properly accounted for.


"In a number of districts we are seeing blatant violations of electoral rules," said Khodyrev. "A number of town mayors, and district chiefs are showing unprecedented activity in support of one candidate: Sklyarov."


Support for Khodyrev in the flourishing capital is thin. But he has stronger backing in the depressed rural areas and among those who lost out from market reforms. "When Khodyrev was the regional Communist Party secretary, industry and agriculture worked," said pensioner Alexander Mironov. "Then these damned democrats arrived and the factories came to a standstill."


Khodyrev claims that local businessmen are starting to desert the Sklyarov camp and offer him their support.


Local observers predict that neither Khodyrev nor Sklyarov will receive the 50 percent of the vote necessary to win outright in Sunday's poll. The two candidates who receive the most votes will enter a second round. Electoral officials have also expressed concern that if the fine weather continues Sunday, voter turnout may be too low to consider the poll valid.