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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

United Russia Loses to a Communist

Itar-TassRoman Grebennikov, pictured in March, received 32.47 percent of the vote.
United Russia's candidate lost to a Communist in Volgograd's mayoral election this weekend, preliminary results showed Monday -- a stunning upset that puts a Communist in charge of a major city for the first time in years.

At 31, Roman Grebennikov will also be the youngest mayor of a regional capital.

Communists hailed the victory as a breakthrough that showed public support remains strong for the party when "votes don't get stolen." United Russia, seeking to put on a brave face, said Grebennikov's agenda mirrored its own and promised to work with anyone who tackled the problems of this city of 1 million.

But the election outcome looks likely to send a chill through the ranks of the pro-Kremlin party, which had been determined to win after suffering embarrassing defeats in a Samara mayoral vote last fall and Stavropol regional legislative elections in March.

Grebennikov received 32.47 percent of the vote, far ahead of United Russia candidate Vasily Galushkin, who placed third with 20.35 percent, according to the preliminary results. Acting Volgograd Mayor Roland Kherianov came in second among the 15 candidates, with 23.85 percent. A simple plurality was enough to win the election.

Thirty-eight percent of the Volgograd's 762,000 registered voters cast their ballots Sunday in the last major vote before State Duma elections in December. There were no reports of significant electoral violations.

After the results were announced, Grebennikov immediately sought to assure United Russia that he would work with the party.

"It is a powerful political party that has a majority in state structures, and you should cooperate with it," he told reporters early Monday.

He said managing Volgograd was not a political game, but an administrative task that he would undertake by first scrutinizing the city's property records.

The election was called after incumbent Mayor Yevgeny Ishchenko resigned in October amid allegations of wrongdoing linked to municipal property, among other things. Ishchenko has been in custody since May 2006 and is currently on trial in a Volgograd court.

Vyacheslav Volodin, the head of United Russia's general council, said the party had not only backed Galushkin, a Duma deputy, but all of the candidates who had Volgograd's interests at heart.

"Along with Galushkin, who was nominated by the regional branch of the party, we also supported candidates who presented themselves as ready to cooperate with United Russia in solving the problems of Volgograd residents," Volodin said.

Four days before the vote, a senior United Russia official, Yury Aleinikov, attempted to link all the leading candidates to the party, saying, "If you analyze their campaign platforms, it is clear that they match the ideological principles of United Russia."

The conciliatory rhetoric will do little to soften the image in voters' minds that United Russia actually lost to the Communists, said Alexei Makarkin, a political analyst with the Center for Political Technologies. He said, however, that this would not undercut United Russia's influence in the region. "Communists in this region have been successfully cooperating with United Russia," he said.

The region is led by a Communist governor, Nikolai Maksyuta, and is traditionally part of Russia's "red belt."

Alevtina Aparina, the only Communist deputy from Volgograd in the Duma, called Grebennikov's win a "breakthrough" and compared it to the Battle of Stalingrad. The 1943 battle at Stalingrad, as Volgograd was previously called, proved to be a turning point in the Soviet Union's war with Nazi Germany. (St. Petersburg Communists on Monday sent an open letter to Grebennikov to rename the city Stalingrad.)

"This victory demonstrates the return of public trust in the Communists and the success of the party's new cadre policy," Aparina said by telephone from Volgograd.

Grebennikov joined the Communist Party after the Soviet collapse and belongs to a new generation of party members who prefer a pragmatic approach over dogmas, Aparina said. He quickly rose through the ranks and became the youngest speaker of a regional legislature in modern Russian history after being elected to the Volgograd legislative assembly in 2001.

Viktor Ilyukhin, a senior Communist Duma deputy, said Sunday's vote reflected the true degree of support that Communists enjoy in the regions. Political pundits, however, predict the party will get only 10 percent to 15 percent of the vote in the Duma elections.

"In Volgograd, the governor did not allow any machinations with ballots in favor of United Russia. That is why we won," Ilyukhin said. "In other places, we lose a lot to United Russia, not because we are weak but because Communist votes get stolen."

State television channels Rossia and Channel One ignored the election results on their Monday evening news programs. NTV showed brief footage of Grebennikov accepting flowers, and a voiceover said he was Communist.

Curiously, Izvestia ran a front-page story Monday that said Galushkin was leading in the election "as Izvestia predicted in a previous issue." The article had the headline "Bears Took Over Volgograd." The bear is the symbol of United Russia.