Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 47

Voters in Saratov Oblast will go to the polls to elect a new governor on March 26–the same day that voters all over Russia cast ballots for a new president. Three candidates are running in the Saratov race: incumbent Governor Dmitri Ayatskov, businessman Spartak Tonakanyan and Igor Karaulov, who represents the interests of Governor Aman Tuleev of Kemerovo Oblast, a presidential candidate. The Monitor’s correspondent in the Volga region reports that Ayatskov is the only real contender. His two opponents are neither well known in the region nor backed by influential political organizations. Their bids, in fact, appear to have been arranged: Russian and regional law demands that the elections be genuinely competitive, but the presence of only one other candidate would make the favorite too dependent on his opponent. Any contingency (an accident, for example) could force postponement of the elections. These were apparently the considerations underlying Ayatskov’s decision to run against two weak competitors.

This way of guaranteeing his re-election reflects the logic which has dominated the election cycle ever since Ayatskov’s decision, which he made virtually alone, to bring the election forward from September to March. His announcement, made immediately after Boris Yeltsin’s New Year’s resignation and the decision to hold the presidential election in March, caught the oblast’s leading politicians off guard. At first they refused to comment. Only later, when the legislature met in special session to discuss the situation, was the issue put to the oblast Duma. This sequence suggests that Ayatskov acted in a panic provoked by Yeltsin’s unexpected decision to resign.

In recent months, the authoritarian regime instituted by Ayatskov in Saratov Oblast has been in crisis, the clearest expression of which was the defeat of the governor’s team in last December’s elections for the State Duma. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), which in recent years had been completely ousted from the region’s political life, won over 30 percent of the votes in Saratov Oblast–above the national average– and communist candidates won the two most organized of Saratov’s four electoral districts.

Yeltsin’s resignation and the elevation of Vladimir Putin to the post of acting president clearly alarmed Ayatskov, who was one of the first governors to declare his support for Putin. This, though, did not help him much: The close ties between his team and the Kremlin administration had already been severed. Ayatskov’s ability to rule with impunity in Saratov Oblast–the main guarantee for his election to a second term–was under threat.

Since the beginning of the campaign it has been clear that Ayatskov planned to win the elections by dint of heavy-handed methods. The man he named as the first head of his campaign staff was not a specialist in election campaigning but Deputy Governor Vladimir Maron, well known for his fondness for a “strong hand.” Efforts then got underway to ensure that genuine competitors stayed out of the race. The man considered Ayatskov’s main opponent, Vyacheslav Volodin, who is currently deputy head of the Fatherland-All Russia faction in the State Duma, was the first to announce that he would not stand, citing his work in Moscow as the basis for his decision. Observers in the region suspect, however, that Volodin was unprepared to withstand the tactics Ayatskov was likely to employ in the campaign.

An example: the local electoral commission’s refusal to register another strong candidate, Valery Rashkin, first secretary of the oblast committee of the Russian Communist Party and a deputy to the State Duma. Rashkin was rejected because he allegedly offered free vodka and payment of back wages to some of those whose signatures he collected in support of his candidacy, and because he had too many fake signatures on his lists–a ruling he has threatened to appeal. As long as the electoral commission’s decision stands, however, Ayatskov appears to be virtually certain of victory.