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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gubernatorial Race Gets Ugly in St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG -- After an election campaign replete with unpredictable changes of favorites and so many dirty tricks that election officials say they cannot be tracked, St. Petersburgers will go to the polls Sunday to elect a governor for the next four years.

The front-runners are the incumbent, Vladimir Yakovlev, and the former head of Yakovlev's finance committee and leader of the St. Petersburg branch of the Yabloko party, Igor Artemyev.

Yakovlev, who became governor in 1996 , is favored to win in the first round.

Yakovlev is supported by the local Communists and by the All Russia faction, which he heads. He is also backed by President Vladimir Putin - who in 1996 organized the failed election campaign for Yakovlev's rival, former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak.

Originally, the Kremlin's official candidate was Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko. Putin's endorsement of her was viewed by many as his revenge for the feuds between his former boss, Sobchak, and Yakovlev.

In a surprising about-face last month, however, Putin switched to implicitly supporting Yakovlev, after Matviyenko withdrew her candidacy.

On Thursday, the pro-Kremlin Unity party announced its endorsement of Artemyev, the single candidate from the city's democratic forces. Unity officials told Interfax the decision was made because the party identified with Artemyev's economic program and because he is backed by the city's democrats.

The election campaign has descended into mutual accusations of dirty tactics so proliferate that election officials say they cannot be responsible for finding the culprits.

Dmitry Krasnyansky, deputy head of the city election commission, said it was up to the candidates to report violations of election law, since the commission "cannot follow" all media. He added that the commission's watchdog on such matters, the Commission for Resolving Information Disputes, was working too slowly.

"It is ridiculous that at the end of this campaign it seems we have had almost no violations ... when one can see so many examples around the city," he said.

The smear campaign has included the defacing of posters supporting Artemyev; a newspaper published by some obscure organizations alleging that, during his term as the city's finance chief, Artemyev misappropriated the equivalent of $146,000; and leaflets claiming that Artemyev was supportive of the national team's embarrassing failure at the World Hockey Championship, set to end on election day.

Last week, the tabloid Sovershenno Sekretno printed a 1-million-copy St. Petersburg special edition in which it alleged that Yakovlev had ties to organized crime groups. Police confiscated 12,000 copies Monday on charges that the paper violated election law because it had no masthead. The rest were distributed free through mailboxes.

Yakovlev's spokesman, Alexander Afanasyev, called the race "too dirty."

"Instead of talking about positive things in their election programs, candidates are smearing each other," he said.

The St. Petersburg election is the eighth gubernatorial election to be held this year.

Seven regions held gubernatorial elections on March 26, the day Russia voted for president. All elections were won by incumbents.

looks like the clear favorite

for the gubernatorial seat

the Yabloko candidate

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Artemyev is the single candidate from the city's democratic forces. Last week, Yuly Rybakov, a liberal State Duma deputy supported by the Union of Right Forces, announced his withdrawal from the race in support of the Yabloko politician, who overwhelmingly won public support in a wide-scale opinion poll in late April.