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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mayors Offer Parties Separate Power Base

STAVROPOL -- As the major parties gear up for the State Duma election campaign, they will almost certainly be studying the lessons of Stavropol.

It was here that the dominant party of power, United Russia, suffered its only defeat in 15 regional parliamentary contests this spring. And the circumstances of that defeat provide a glimmer of hope to the rest of the field.

Stavropol Mayor Dmitry Kuzmin led the alternative party of power, A Just Russia, to victory in the March 11 election, overcoming the political machine of Governor Alexander Chernogorov and United Russia.

Similar conflicts between sitting governors, most of whom are United Russia members, and the powerful mayors of major cities, can be found in a number of regions, including Arkhangelsk, Primorye and Samara.

As the federal parliamentary contest nears, rivals to United Russia can be expected to court the mayors in other regions in order to marshal their administrativny resurs -- access to finances, clout with the bureaucracy, influence over the media -- in order to offset the huge advantage long enjoyed by United Russia.

State Duma Deputy Mikhail Yemelyanov, a United Russia member from the neighboring Rostov region, said his party's defeat was the result of a split in the regional political elite.

"Part of the elite, headed by Kuzmin, went over to A Just Russia and proved to be stronger than Chernogorov and his team," Yemelyanov said.

Mayors are members of a dying breed -- directly elected members of the executive branch. Governors are now appointed by the president and fully incorporated into the so-called power vertical.

Their relative independence, coupled with the power of city hall, make mayors the wild cards in the election process. Their control of municipal assets and finances allows them to cultivate loyal supporters and rely on that support when they lock horns with the established elite.

A Just Russia has clearly identified mayors as potential allies in its attempt to break United Russia's stranglehold on power. During a visit to Stavropol following the March election, Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, who heads A Just Russia at the national level, said his party was "consciously not accepting any sitting governors."

During the campaign, this battle between rival factions in the regional power structure took the form of an ideological dispute. A Just Russia positions itself as a "center-left" party in contrast to United Russia, located somewhere to the right of center.

An informal poll of voters in several Stavropol region cities recently suggested that this ideological aspect was important to A Just Russia's strong showing at the polls. Many people who had voted for United Russia the last time out changed camps in response to A Just Russia's focus on the sort of pocketbook issues that often dominate local elections. While retaining a certain skepticism about campaign promises, voters nevertheless found the message appealing.

At the heart of the conflict within the regional elite, however, is money -- specifically, the complicated relations between municipal and regional budgets.

Stavropol Deputy Mayor Mikhail Grigoryev said this financial battle between big city mayors and governors occurs in nearly every region. "And at the heart of it is the budgetary relationship between cities and regions," he said.

In the Stavropol region, Chernogorov gradually lost out in the fight for financial control and political clout to the Stavropol mayors, Dmitry Kuzmin and his unrelated predecessor, Mikhail Kuzmin.

His popularity took a big hit when he abandoned the Communist Party to join United Russia, allowing his rivals to paint the governor as a political opportunist and Johnny-come-lately.

Expelled from United Russia after the election, Chernogorov has been on the defensive ever since. Most recently, he fired a number of key ministers and filled their jobs with relative unknowns.

Sergei Smirnov, general director of the Rostov-on-Don-based think-tank Applied Political Science, said the shake-up was "an attempt to shift responsibility for the election defeat on his deputies, employees and the administration."

The question is whether Chernogorov has managed to convince the Kremlin.

"Chernogorov is trying to prove that he's still the governor. He doesn't want to step down, but his situation is very difficult," said Yury Girenko, an analyst at the Moscow School of Political Research.

"It's hard to say what will happen next, but Chernogorov seems to be in his death throes," Girenko said.