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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No One Left to Vote for in Norilsk

The people of Norilsk have no trouble digging up metal, but they can't seem to dig up a mayor.

The Arctic city famed for its platinum and nickel was supposed to elect a leader this Sunday -- but there is no one left to vote for.

Before Monday, the race for mayor was down to the two men who came in first and second in a four-man contest in the first poll on April 20. But the favorite, Valery Melnikov, a union leader at powerful Norilsk Nickel, which employs about a quarter of the city's 230,000 people, was struck from the ballot for alleged campaign violations.

For a few hours Monday it looked like Melnikov's rival, Sergei Shmakov, the city council chairman and a reported Norilsk Nickel frontman, would waltz to victory. But in a surprise tribute to electoral fidelity, Shmakov said he couldn't participate in "unfair" elections and withdrew from the race.

That left Leonid Fraiman, the head of Norilsk Nickel's polar supply division, who polled less than 3 percent in the first round -- hardly a popular mandate, considering 17 percent voted against all candidates -- and 30-year-old lawyer Alexander Gliskov, who polled just 1 percent.

(Melnikov, who campaigned much the same way he lobbies as a labor leader -- for higher wages and more vacation time at Norilsk Nickel -- polled 47 percent in the first round, just under the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff, but comfortably ahead of Shmakov's 31 percent.)

But Tuesday, Fraiman, too, got political religion, saying he felt uncomfortable running for a post that rightfully belonged to Melnikov. And shortly after Fraiman dropped out, Gliskov did too, saying he never really wanted his name on the ballot in the first place.

"I never wanted to become the mayor of Norilsk," Gliskov said by telephone Tuesday. "I just wanted to use the campaign to get known before the race for the State Duma kicks in. I am actually surprised that I even got 1 percent in the first round, since I publicly announced three days before the vote that I didn't want to be mayor."

But apparently not everything in northern Siberia is as it seems.

Gliskov claimed that he was working in partnership with Melnikov. Melnikov, however, denied any connection with Gliskov, saying the elections were called off as part of a "dirty game" that included his own disqualification.

Melnikov said his main opponent, Shmakov, dropped out not because he is a champion of fair elections, but out of fear that he would be humiliated if he got fewer votes than against all.

Melnikov also said he received several offers from Shmakov's "powerful backer" -- Norilsk Nickel -- during the campaign to drop out in exchange for help getting elected to the State Duma in December. "But I am not interested in getting into the Duma. There is nothing for me there. I want to be the mayor of Norilsk. And I can tell you, I will be the mayor," he said.

Norilsk Nickel officials refused to comment on campaign developments.

Melnikov also disputed the charges used by the local elections commission to disqualify him, such as overspending on the campaign and using a song by rock star Andrei Makarevich in a promo clip without the artist's permission.

It was unclear Tuesday whether the violation of the copyright charge was initiated by Makarevich himself, or someone acting on the singer's behalf.

Shmakov was not available for comment Tuesday. His spokeswoman, Yelizaveta Grigoryeva, declined to comment on whether her boss was afraid of being outpolled by against all.

Yury Oleinikov, deputy governor of Krasnoyarsk, the region where Norilsk is located, said the next attempt at electing a mayor for the city would be in December, coinciding with the Duma elections, according to Maxim Gurevich, the spokesman for the regional administration.

"The important thing is that the situation in the city stays manageable. While the situation remains within the limits of the law, we don't see any need for the executive branch to interfere," Gurevich said.

Until then, the city will be run by acting Mayor Gennady Petukhov, who took over for Oleg Budargin in January after Budargin was elected governor of the neighboring Taimyr autonomous district, which, like Norilsk, is located within the massive Krasnoyarsk region.

Budargin replaced former Norilsk Nickel general director Nikolai Khloponin, who became governor of Krasnoyarsk last year after the former governor, retired general and one-time presidential candidate Alexander Lebed, died in a helicopter crash a year ago Monday.