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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Wrestler Courts Voters in Stavropol

MTAlexander Karelin, a Duma deputy and former champion wrestler, signing autographs for Cossacks and other people in the town of Novoaleksandrovsk.
NOVOALEKSANDROVSK, Stavropol Region -- It was only a matter of time before someone asked Alexander Karelin for his autograph.

Karelin, a State Duma deputy and a champion wrestler with three Olympic gold medals, was facing an audience of several hundred residents of this small, hard-up farming town in southern Russia. Perhaps not surprisingly, they had been badgering him with questions about bread-and-butter issues such as low military pensions.

Then came the softball. The autograph-seeker's request brought chuckles from the audience but a stern reprimand from Karelin, who has the No. 2 spot on United Russia's ticket for the Stavropol region.

"I understand perfectly well that many of you, even military pensioners, are here because of my successes representing Russia in sports," Karelin said at the Tuesday event. "But the reason I am here, above all, is to represent United Russia."

Karelin has been campaigning heavily throughout the Stavropol region along with the No. 1 candidate on the ticket, the popular emergency situations minister, Sergei Shoigu, to pump up United Russia's results in Duma elections Sunday.

United Russia has sent some of its top celebrities to Stavropol. Besides Shoigu and Karelin, the ticket includes Nikolai Rastorguyev, frontman of the rock band Lyube. At No. 8, he is unlikely to get a spot in the Duma even if the party wins a sweeping victory, but that has not stopped him from giving a series of concerts throughout the region.

Analysts say United Russia is using celebrities to bolster its position in a region where it had trouble earlier this year.

During regional parliamentary elections in March, Stavropol was the only one of 14 regions where United Russia lost. The so-called party of power came in second to A Just Russia, the rival pro-Kremlin party created last year by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov as a center-left alternative to United Russia.

Now, United Russia is trying to reconquer Stavropol. But its opponents say the party is using tactics far more sinister than rock concerts or visits by sports legends.

The main target of the purported dirty-tricks campaign is A Just Russia, which could have its No. 1 candidate, Stavropol Mayor Dmitry Kuzmin, crossed off the ballot because of a court case that the party says is politically motivated.

Alexander Osipovich / MT
Karelin meeting with admirers on the campaign trail in Novoaleksandrovsk.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that Kuzmin's candidacy was illegal because his supporters had handed out gifts marked with A Just Russia's logo before the start of the campaign season, a violation of campaign law.

Igor Gusev, a spokesman for the Stavropol branch of A Just Russia, did not deny the charges but said they were not serious enough to justify removing Kuzmin from the ballot. He accused the authorities of initiating the court case to prevent a repeat of the March elections, when Kuzmin led the party to victory over United Russia.

"All possible means are being used to ensure that such an outcome doesn't happen again," Gusev said.

Vladimir Lebedenko, a spokesman for the regional branch of United Russia, denied that his party was behind the Kuzmin investigation. "What's there to comment about?" he asked. "Everything here is perfectly clear and transparent."

The Stavropol regional elections commission is waiting for the results of Kuzmin's appeal and will manually cross his name off thousands of ballots if he loses, said Anastasia Konnikova, a spokeswoman for the commission.

Gusev said voters might be motivated to support A Just Russia if they get their ballots and see Kuzmin's name with a line through it. "It's possible that this could actually help us," he said. "Russians have sympathy for the underdog."

Kuzmin himself has not been seen in Stavropol in recent weeks, and his supporters say he may be outside the country.

The mayor's legal troubles became more serious Tuesday when prosecutors charged him with exceeding his authority by giving city-owned real estate to his associates.

Yezhi Rashchevsky, a lawyer familiar with the investigation, called Kuzmin and his associates "a criminal group that came to power."

"There's enough to put him away for 10 years," Rashchevsky said.

In a bizarre turn, a senior police official held a televised news conference Wednesday to announce that Nazi flags and medals had been found during a search of Kuzmin's office. The Nazi regalia has been shown repeatedly on local television.

Yelena Tsikachyova, a spokeswoman for the regional branch of the Investigative Committee, said the charges against Kuzmin were not motivated by the Duma elections. She declined to comment on the Nazi flags and medals. Repeated calls to Kuzmin's office were not answered this week.

The investigation has also ensnared Andrei Utkin, the speaker of the Stavropol regional legislature and a close ally of Kuzmin's. On Thursday, prosecutors charged him with exceeding his authority by misusing city funds.

Utkin was originally No. 4 on A Just Russia's ticket for the State Duma, but he withdrew earlier this month, saying he did not want to compete against President Vladimir Putin, who leads the federal ticket for United Russia.

Supporters of A Just Russia say he left under threat of a criminal investigation.

The party has also complained about harassment of rank-and-file campaign workers. Vladislav Vashtai, a 30-year-old party activist, said he was searched and detained last week in Novopavlovsk, a town near the region's border with North Ossetia. Police had no warrant but said they were searching for evidence of terrorist activity, he said.

"They tried to intimidate me psychologically," Vashtai said. "They said I could be charged with terrorism."

Repeated attempts to reach Novopavlovsk police were unsuccessful.

A Just Russia is not the only party to complain about dirty tricks in Stavropol.

Earlier this month, unknown vandals spray-painted graffiti promoting the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, throughout the city. But the graffiti was actually designed to discredit the liberal party in the eyes of voters, said Boris Obolenets, a deputy in the regional legislature and the leader of the SPS ticket for the Duma elections.

"It's a pity that property was damaged," Obolenets said, noting that the vandals seemed to focus on nice, recently renovated houses.

The graffiti began what Obolenets called a campaign of petty hooliganism against SPS. During a visit by party co-founder Boris Nemtsov in mid-November, an old woman tried to throw a cake at him. Later, two teenagers threw mud-filled condoms at Nemtsov before running away.

The hooliganism campaign took a more serious turn on Sunday, when the main SPS office was set on fire, apparently with a Molotov cocktail. Nobody was injured, and the fire was quickly extinguished by supporters of the Communist Party, whose headquarters is down the hall.

Charred doors, broken glass and nearby graffiti saying "SPS Are Faggots!" were still visible during a visit to the office Monday.

Obolenets suggested that United Russia was behind the campaign. "It's pretty clear who ordered this," he said. "The Communists don't need this, LDPR doesn't need this, and A Just Russia doesn't need this."

Lebedenko, the United Russia spokesman, scoffed at the suggestion that his party had anything to do with the fire and countered that SPS had probably set the fire itself for publicity. "Look at their ratings, they're extremely low," he said. "I think this was a clumsy attempt by their own spin doctors."

The Communists, who dominated the Stavropol region until the rise of United Russia, also grumbled about unfair treatment. Attempts by candidates to meet with voters have been blocked by officials, said Viktor Goncharov, a regional deputy who leads the Communist ticket in the Duma elections.

All the opposition parties agreed that United Russia was determined to avenge its loss in the March elections, with special attention devoted to A Just Russia.

"I wouldn't want to be in the place of A Just Russia right now," said Obolenets, the SPS leader.

United Russia lost the March vote because of a damaging split between Kuzmin, the Stavropol mayor, and Governor Alexander Chernogorov, analysts said. Many regions have seen turf wars between governors, who are now appointed by the president, and mayors, who are still elected.

In the case of Kuzmin and Chernogorov, the split led them to back different parties in the March elections, said Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "The governor and the mayor could not coexist in one structure, so the mayor decided to support A Just Russia," Petrov said.

Chernogorov, who is widely unpopular, backed United Russia and lost. Stavropol residents said A Just Russia won mainly because of anti-Chernogorov sentiment. The governor is blamed for lackluster economic growth, and he was also damaged by a negative PR campaign in which his second wife accused him of being a cheapskate. The campaign was immortalized in the annals of black PR with the slogan "Sell the Bentley and pay your alimony."

"They should just [expletive] get rid of him already," said Nikolai, a taxi driver.

A spokesman for Chernogorov declined to discuss the March elections and said the governor was unavailable for comment because of illness.

The governor was expelled from United Russia but avoided being dismissed by Putin. Without him, the party had no obvious Stavropol residents to represent it in the Duma elections -- which is apparently why it recruited Shoigu and Karelin.

Neither Shoigu nor Karelin comes from Stavropol.

Shoigu is not expected to take a Duma seat if elected, suggesting that his popularity is being used to help candidates further down the ticket -- a practice that is widely used by United Russia. Putin is not expected to take a Duma seat either.

Gusev, the spokesman for A Just Russia, criticized the tactic. "How would people in America feel if Hillary Clinton was elected president and then said, 'Oh, actually, this other person is going to take the job?'" he said.

Shoigu touted United Russia at a news conference in Stavropol on Thursday, and, in a clear nod to Kuzmin and A Just Russia, said the party would not resort to mudslinging like its opponents, Interfax reported.

Obolenets, the SPS leader, said United Russia faced an uphill battle in Sunday's vote because of A Just Russia's strong base in the region. "They are in a bad situation," he said.

The challenges facing United Russia were apparent in Tuesday's campaign event in Novoaleksandrovsk.

Voters in the crowded auditorium bombarded Karelin with questions about issues ranging from the high salaries of Duma deputies to the low quality of sausage.

"Aren't there any people in the Duma who think about how poor teachers are?" one retired teacher asked angrily, prompting applause from the audience.

Other voters simply seemed delighted to meet a national sports hero in the flesh.

"I am greatly pleased to shake hands with a three-time Olympic champion," one man gushed to Karelin, who sat down after his presentation to sign autographs for a crowd of fans, including several men dressed in full Cossack garb.

Karelin shook the man's hand and dutifully signed an autograph.