Five hundred miles southeast of Moscow on the banks of the Volga River, the region of Saratov lies in what once was called Russia’s Red Belt, the Communists’ political stronghold. That was before Governor Dmitri Ayatskov, who runs the large, industrial region with little tolerance for dissent, broke the Communist grip. Ayatskov, initially appointed to the post by Boris Yeltsin, easily beat the Communists to win election as governor in 1996 with strong support from the Kremlin. But when Boris Yeltsin resigned last December 31, the governor grew nervous. The Communists had done well in December’s parliamentary elections, taking over 30 percent of the vote compared to 25 percent nationally. And though Ayatskov came out quickly and strongly for Vladimir Putin, his Kremlin ties seemed suddenly uncertain and his own re-election in doubt.

The governor is a man of action, and act he did. He convened a special session of the regional legislature, which agreeably advanced the election from September to March 26, the date of the special presidential election. Because federal and local law requires a competitive election, he could not run unopposed, but he could and did recruit a pliable opposition. Spartak Tonakanyan and Igor Karaulov are political palookas, neither known in the region nor backed by any influential organization. Real challengers were kept away. Vyacheslav Volodin, a federal Duma deputy, took himself out of contention–unwilling, observers say, to face the tactics Ayatskov was likely to employ against him. Valery Rashkin, a popular local communist, could not get past the regional electoral commission. He was denied the right to run because some of those who signed his nominating petition had been inveigled with vodka and–shocking!–promises of payment of back wages.

Look for a strong showing by Governor Ayatskov two weeks from now.