Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 136

The first round of voting in the election for governor of Nizhegorod Oblast took place on July 12. None of the candidates won an outright majority, which means that a run-off will have to be held. Even so, the result has sent a jolt through the body politic. According to preliminary data, Gennady Khodyrev, a State Duma deputy and member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) came first, with 24.4 percent of the votes. Second was incumbent Governor Ivan Sklyarov, with 20.8 percent. A run-off election is expected on July 29.

That a run-off will be necessary in this major industrial region came as no surprise. No one had been expected to win outright, and there had been heated discussion over which two candidates would face off in the second round. Most people, however, considered incumbent Sklyarov, State Duma Deputy Vadim Bulavinov and businessman Andrei Klimentev–though he has served two terms in jail–as likeliest to qualify (, July 6; Vremya Novostei, July 13). Khodyrev was not considered a serious contender.

In the early stages of the campaign, Klimentev seemed very popular with the voters. He was, however, totally unacceptable to the Kremlin or to President Putin’s representative in the Volga federal district, Sergei Kirienko (Trud, July 7). Klimentev was sentenced to his second jail term in 1998, following his election as mayor of the regional capital, Nizhny Novgorod. At the time, commentators saw his conviction for financial malfeasance as the Kremlin’s way of punishing him for his unsanctioned victory at the polls. Sentenced to six years in a labor camp, Klimentev was let out early for good behavior. This time around, the pundits predicted that Klimentev would be disqualified from the election, perhaps on charges that he bribed his way out of jail, and sent back to prison to finish his term. At first, this only increased his poll ratings. Gradually, however, his popularity began to wane until, one week before the election, Sklyarov pulled ahead in the polls (, July 6). At that point, the possibility of a Bulavinov victory became a point of discussion. This prompted commentators to say that the Nizhegorod election had provoked yet another split in the Kremlin team, with Kirienko backing Sklyarov and the presidential administration supporting parliamentarian Bulavinov (Izvestia, July 7). Sergei Shoigu, minister for emergencies and leader of the pro-Putin Unity Party, set off a mini-scandal when he came out in support of Sklyarov (Vremya Novostei, July 13). As a government minister, Shoigu is not supposed to support any particular candidate in an election (, July 10). Shoigu’s protest that he was speaking not as a minister, but as a “private individual,” was unconvincing (TV-6, July 11).

No one expected Khodyrev to make it into the run-off (, July 6). His victory has therefore taken everyone by surprise. It seems, in fact, to have been provoked by the same desire on the part of ordinary people to register a protest vote that originally made Klimentev so attractive (Vremya MN, July 12). Boris Nemtsov, himself a former governor of Nizhegorod Oblast, blamed local leaders. “There is a lot of protest voting,” he said, “because people are fed up with the region’s current government” (NTV, July 7).

Commentators also noted that the election is important less for itself than in the context of the next elections for Russian president, set for 2004. Nizhegorod Oblast has always had a special relationship with the Kremlin, which has regularly used it as a testing ground for new policies. The constant federal presence there prevented the assertion of a power monopoly by the governor and made the Kremlin the real political force in the region. Now, it seems, the local population has had enough. “The situation in Nizhny should be seen from the point of view of what awaits the country in the near future,” one commentator wrote. “The alarming thing is that protest is building up in the large cities, which are destined to become the forces of change for both the regions and the country as a whole” (Vremya MN, July 12).