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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Altai's Schwarzenegger Has the Last Laugh

Itar-TassPopular comedian Mikhail Yevdokimov doing a stand-up routine in January 2003.
The Altai region in southern Siberia may not enjoy Californian sunshine, but since Sunday the mountainous region has something in common with the West Coast state -- it has a showbiz star for governor.

The Altai version of Arnold Schwarzenegger is no muscle-bound action hero, but a portly 46-year-old actor and comedian, Mikhail Yevdokimov, who plays country bumpkin roles on television and in movies.

Yevdokimov, a candidate with no discernible political agenda but instant name recognition thanks to his showbiz profile, won the runoff election with 49.79 percent of the vote, just under 4 percentage points ahead of 63-year-old incumbent Alexander Surikov, who won 46.04 percent of the vote.

The result was all the more surprising because an alliance of all the region's main political parties, including the pro-Kremlin United Russia and the Communists, supported Surikov in the second round.

But analysts specializing in regional politics said Monday that Yevdokimov had in fact run on a smart, slick PR campaign, and kept his message simple to capitalize on his star status. They also said that Yevdokimov had received the backing of influential local business interests for his campaign.

Billboards for Yevdokimov around the region featured the slogan, "Let's Put Jokes to One Side," while the comedian promised to make the region "as successful and rich as I am."

Maxim Dianov, director of the Institute for Regional Problems, said that Yevdokimov's PR consultants had portrayed him as the Altai Schwarzenegger, and that it was the first time such PR techniques had been used in the region's elections.

But Dianov said it was not so much Yevdokimov's campaign that won the election, as Surikov's that lost it. "People are tired of seeing governors running for a third term," he said.

Alexei Titkov, a regional analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that Yevdokimov's victory shows that people in the region were tired of the former elite and preferred to cast the ballot for someone "who has no links with politics but is a well-known personality."

Yevdokimov, who has played on his local roots during the campaign, has made his career by telling funny stories reflecting the point of view of ordinary country people.

Yevdokimov pledged on Ekho Moskvy radio on Monday that he would "work and not tell lies or steal."

But Yevdokimov's motivation for getting involved in regional politics remained less than clear. In a biography posted on the web site www.evdokimov.alt.ru, Yevdokimov said that some people said he should stay out of politics, since he had a good career as a comedian in Moscow. Yevdokimov was quoted as saying: "I myself could not stand those gangs of bureaucrats ever since I was a youngster. In our village, there were neither mayors nor governors, and if they appeared it was for a short time."

In the first round on March 14, Surikov won 47.46 percent of the vote -- just short of the 50 percent required for outright victory -- against 39.46 percent for Yevdokimov.

Analysts said the inclusion of a candidate with the same surname as the incumbent governor had likely prevented Alexander Surikov winning in the first round.

The namesake, Vitaly Surikov, won just 3 percent of the vote, but it was enough to force a runoff.

"Surikov thought he was sure to get reelected automatically, but he was wrong. [Yevdokimov's] clever and technically correct campaign worked," Dianov said.

Analysts said Yevdokimov's campaign was correct from a legal point of view, as he did not appear on television news or comedy programs during the campaign, and only used the free airtime allotted to candidates.

Both Dianov and Titkov said some influential local businesses had backed Yevdokimov's campaign, and that the Kremlin was not happy with the outcome.

Surikov had underestimated Yevdokimov's chances in the first round, they said, but had tried to win over voters in the runoff with a massive leafleting and billboard campaign. Large billboards depicting Surikov with children and students were on display all around the region, the analysts said.

Surikov's runoff campaign also got personal, they said, accusing Yevdokimov of being an alcoholic, having diabetes and suffering from incontinence.

Vodka bottles with a picture of Yevdokimov on the label were on sale during the election campaign, and the comedian has mocked drunks in his routines.

Yevdokimov was also denied access to the media, the analysts said.

Officials appeared to be using administrative resources to block Yevdokimov's campaign, they said, since local Houses of Culture, where he was due to meet voters, were announced closed for repairs -- and police broke up street meetings.

In the 1990s, the Altai region was part of the so-called Red Belt of regions, where the Communist Party has traditionally counted on higher-than-average support.

Surikov was elected governor for the first time in 1996 with the support of the Communist and Agrarian parties, and won re-election in 2000 with 77 percent of the vote. In that election, he had the support of the Communists and most of the other political parties in the region.

Surikov said he would not appeal the result of the elections.

 In a runoff election in the Koryak region on Sunday, incumbent Governor Vladimir Loginov beat regional prosecutor Boris Chuyev.