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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A 3-Way Battle for Governor in Ryazan

RYAZAN -- Vadim, a taxi driver in this city a three-hour train ride east of Moscow, said he would go to the polls, but only to support President Vladimir Putin. The region's gubernatorial election on the same day meant little to him.

"I wish they would just get appointed," he said, echoing the view of many, including one of the gubernatorial candidates. "They do Moscow's bidding anyway, no matter who gets elected. So what's the point?"

By 7:30 p.m. Sunday, 59 percent of the region's voters thought there was enough of a point to turn out, according to Ryazan's elections committee.

Ten regions voted for regional leaders Sunday -- but none of the races appeared to be as close as Ryazan's. After a campaign tarnished by allegations of dirty tricks, voters were picking between incumbent Governor Vyacheslav Lyubimov, United Russia Deputy Igor Morozov and Rodina Deputy Georgy Shpak.

"This is the first of the three elections that I've covered where three candidates have an equal chance," said Irina Sizova, reporter with state-owned paper Ryazan Vedomosti.

Lyubimov, a Communist, was running for a third term on the technicality that during his first one he did not have the title "governor." So confident was he of support that he called the election early. But 10 days after his announcement Morozov won a State Duma seat with an unexpected 37 percent of the vote in a rural Communist stronghold, which made Lyubimov's standing look weaker and invited others into the race.

Incumbent leaders in the Central Federal District, of which Ryazan is a part, are in a shaky position because the Kremlin is not as worried about economic destabilization here as in resource-rich areas like the Urals and Siberia, said Sergei Micheyev of the Center for Political Technologies.

"Capable administrators leave for Moscow, while ambitious politicians like General Shpak flood in" to raise their profiles, said Alexei Titkov of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Lyubimov is running as an independent in this election. Morozov, a charismatic man with security service background, failed to get his candidacy cleared with Moscow before entering the fray. He tried twice to get an endorsement from the local United Russia group but was turned down, something he blames on interference from the local administration. Shpak, a short and burly former Air Force commander, has not picked up Rodina's endorsement, the result of a power struggle within the bloc.

Shorn of any partisan funding, the candidates have turned to handouts from businesses -- including unnamed financial holdings in Moscow.

"The fact that there is competition does not mean the election is democratic," said Vladimir Rimsky, a regions expert at the Indem think tank. "It could be purely a competition between various administrative resources and big businesses."

Black PR posters and leaflets flooded the region during the campaign. Among them were posters inviting voters to "Tell the general to [expletive] off!" along with alleged endorsements from Boris Berezovsky, Anatoly Chubais and Aslan Maskhadov. Morozov was hit by a wave of fliers comparing him to Hitler on the last day of campaigning.

Much of the mudslinging also revolves around real issues, like the economy. Shpak's slogan is "Breakthrough Not Stagnation." Morozov talks of doubling the regional budget and accuses Lyubimov of mismanagement. Viktor Malyugin of Lyubimov's campaign staff stresses the governor's agricultural achievements.

Whatever their stated differences, all three candidates tie their programs with Putin, Sizova said. Unlike some regional races, the Kremlin has not endorsed anyone in Ryazan and has been sending out mixed signals, said Mikhail Komarov, a local investigative journalist. "The Kremlin is not monolithic -- it is composed of factions -- and this is well reflected on this campaign," he said.

Not that the Kremlin's stamp of approval would make much of a difference to Komarov anyway. "You know, I have been thinking of whom I would vote for on Sunday, and I just can't bear to choose anyone," he said. "Each of them is uglier than the next."