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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Poll Puts Kalmykia on Kremlin's Map

ELISTA, Kalmykia -- The erratically functioning street lamps in this wind-swept provincial capital make it an unusually dark place after sunset.

But this week, a handful of windows have been shining brightly throughout the night. Inside the lit rooms, bleary-eyed press secretaries, campaign staffers in rumpled suits and PR gurus imported from Moscow are helping candidates in this sleepy Buddhist republic fight a battle for the presidency.

The likely winner in the election Sunday is Kalmykia's young, flamboyant president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a shrewd perestroika-era businessman who has held the southern republic in his firm grip since 1993.

But, although the Kremlin has not overtly tapped anyone to replace Ilyumzhinov, it seems clear that Moscow aims to clip his wings a bit -- for starters, by taking greater control over local law enforcement.

In Elista, Ilyumzhinov is everywhere. At the local airport, his smiling face greets arriving passengers from fliers picturing him, in white robe and turban, atop a regal-looking camel. In the city's main square, in front of the presidential administration, Ilyumzhinov's aura wafts over the shiny black statue of Lenin, which he ordered to be turned around to face the building instead of standing, disrespectfully, with its back to it.

Perhaps more important, the Kalmyk president, whose critics disparage as a despotic and repressive "khan," holds great sway over life in the republic. He has full control of the region's murky tax haven, which is currently under the scrutiny of federal authorities.

Until the middle of last month, Ilyumzhinov, 40, had been the only registered candidate, sailing confidently toward a third term as president. Now he faces 10 challengers -- with the two top contenders claiming to have weighty support from the Kremlin.

Moreover, in the past two weeks, federal officials and state-run media have fired a barrage of criticism at Ilyumzhinov's allies and, implicitly, at the president himself. The attack has gone as far as a high-profile investigation into alleged criminal activity by Kalmykia's police chief.

"All of it was somewhat unexpected for us," Ilyumzhinov's spokesman, Buyancha Galzanov said with reserve Wednesday.

The atmosphere at presidential campaign headquarters was so tense by the end of the week that Ilyumzhinov canceled all interviews with the press until after Sunday's vote. The decision, Galzanov said, was meant to safeguard the president against accusations that he is abusing his office to secure extra publicity and thereby violating campaign regulations.

"They are nervous," said one of Ilyumzhinov's two top rivals, Baatr Shondzhiyev, a banker and a leader of the Kalmyk community in Moscow. "Care must be taken to avoid any technicalities that could get one struck from the ballot. ... Ilyumzhinov is used to being in total control, and now that his power is challenged he's at a loss."

Tensions notwithstanding, few here doubt that Ilyumzhinov will win. On Thursday evening, Shondzhiyev was summoned to appear in court the following day to face accusations of bribing voters with vodka, a charge he and his staffers denied. Also, Friday, the same court is to hear a complaint filed by five opposition candidates against Ilyumzhinov.

If it is true that there is no smoke without fire, it would seem Ilyumzhinov has reason for worry. Last week, Alexander Veshnyakov, the head of the Central Elections Commission, announced that he would be keeping an especially close eye on Kalmykia. Veshnyakov complained of campaign violations favoring Ilyumzhinov, including slanted publicity "clearly extolling the current president and defaming the other candidates."

Veshnyakov, widely considered a Kremlin loyalist, "very strongly recommended" that Ilyumzhinov go on vacation for the remainder of the campaign. Speaking with uncharacteristic harshness, Veshnyakov said this would make it harder to take advantage of the incumbent's privileged position -- both for Ilyumzhinov himself and for the "bootlickers who provide him with these services."

Moscow's political elite has been sending mixed signals about its position on Kalmykia.

Veshnyakov, who was expected to arrive in Elista late Thursday, softened his stance this week, saying he had been accusing not Ilyumzhinov but his entourage of wrongdoing. He also slammed the local election commission -- widely believed to be under Ilyumzhinov's control -- for incompetence.

A number of federal officials, including the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, Viktor Kazantsev, have been supportive of Ilyumzhinov throughout the campaign.

Both of Ilyumzhinov's main rivals and a number of major Moscow newspapers have described these mixed signals as a sign of a battle between old and new Kremlin clans: the so-called Family of insiders left over from President Boris Yeltsin's days and the so-called St. Petersburg team brought in by President Vladimir Putin.

By midweek, claims and counterclaims of Kremlin support swelled to a fever pitch. Shondzhiyev, the Moscow banker, said he had the backing of the new Putin team and Ilyumzhinov's support base lay with the Family. The other top challenger, Nikolai Ochirov -- whose popularity hinges on a strong socialist platform -- claimed that he was the man Putin's people backed and that Shondzhiyev and Ilyumzhinov were both proxies of the old Yeltsin clan.

Having Moscow's blessing is of immense importance for the public image of regional politicians, whose constituencies understand that little can be accomplished without support from the federal authorities.

Ilyumzhinov himself has hyped his ties with the Kremlin. A recent wreath-laying ceremony in the center of Elista was conspicuously interrupted so that Ilyumzhinov could answer an urgent phone call from Putin to update the Russian president on what was happening in the republic. The following day, a blurb about the phone call appeared on the front page of the official Izvestia Kalmykii newspaper.

Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional politics with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said he was not surprised by the ambiguity of Moscow's response to the Kalmykia race.

"Describing the current situation as a battle between the Family and the Petersburgers would be primitive," Petrov said.

While there are certainly interest groups in the capital that would like to see Ilyumzhinov stay in power and others who would rather see him go, Moscow's goal in dealing with such influential regional leaders is broader, Petrov said. By putting pressure on the incumbent, the Kremlin can take advantage of his vulnerability at election time -- when he is "like a crab changing his shell" -- and try to tighten its hold on the republic.

"By creating additional problems for Ilyumzhinov, the [federal] center is strengthening its position for political haggling and, regardless of the fact that Ilyumzhinov will most likely be re-elected, the center will get something for itself," Petrov said.

One of the prizes at stake, he said, was greater control over Kalmykia's security and law enforcement agencies, beginning with the regional Interior Ministry.

Last week's suspension of Kalmyk Interior Minister Timofei Sasykov got aggressive, sensationalist coverage on state-run Rossia and Channel One television.

The suspension came after an investigation by the Interior Ministry's internal affairs department, or GUSB, which found that Kalmyk police had covered up and personally benefited from caviar and sturgeon poaching and illegal oil production. Investigators also accused the local police of intimidating Ilyumzhinov's opponents in the election campaign and illegally registering migrants from Chechnya, some of whom could have been cooperating with Chechen rebels.

"The local police force has totally submitted itself to Ilyumzhinov," a GUSB official said. "The ministry has been pulled into a political battle."

Sasykov has been suspended pending a full investigation, but a decision to fire him can only come from Putin. The Gazeta newspaper on Wednesday cited highly placed sources in the federal Interior Ministry as saying that Sasykov would be sacked as soon as Ilyumzhinov was re-elected.

The scandal has hit a sore spot with local voters, who say they are tired of corruption and nepotism in Ilyumzhinov's government and lament their low standard of living.

"Ilyumzhinov likes chic and luster, he likes to create that aura. But the republic is in ruins. Nothing works," said Lyudmila Idzhiyeva, a 43-year-old vendor selling umbrellas at Elista's drab central market.

Many residents of this impoverished republic of 317,000 -- which has zero foreign investment -- have been upset by Ilyumzhinov's exorbitant spending. While Kalmykia's budget for 2001 was 2 billion rubles ($67 million), the president boasted of spending $22 million on his premier league soccer team, Uralan. Several years ago, tens of millions of dollars went into building Chess City, a hotel and conference complex. (Ilyumzhinov has headed the International Chess Federation, FIDE, since 1995 and is the sole candidate for the organization's presidency this year.)

"He is not embarrassed to flaunt his wealth in front of a dirt-poor republic," Union of Right Forces leader Boris Nemtsov, who came to support his party's candidate Natalia Manzhikova, told reporters Thursday.

Ilyumzhinov's opponents and critics have long accused him of suppressing dissent, for example by insuring that the relatives of those who cross his path lose their jobs.

In one of the grisliest scandals tied to Ilyumzhinov's name, a former presidential aide was convicted for the brutal murder of opposition journalist Larisa Yudina in June 1998. Many prominent human rights activists, including Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, believe the killing was carried out on orders from the highest echelons of Kalmykia's leadership.

Some observers believe the Kremlin had earlier wanted to replace Ilyumzhinov, considering him a liability, but didn't hustle in time to install its own man. However, Carnegie's Petrov was skeptical.

"Such situations can rarely be described as 'all or nothing,' where a bad Ilyumzhinov is replaced with a good Mr. X," Petrov said.

If powerful groups in Moscow have differing visions of who should be in charge, he said, they reach a compromise that balances their interests.

"Under that balance, Ilyumzhinov will likely lose a little as a regional leader, while the center will gain some additional leverage and additional control over the [official] bodies and situation in the republic," he said.