It's something Russia hasn't seen in quite awhile: a wide-open, unpredictable election in which a full spectrum of colorful, disputatious candidates compete by debating the issues and canvassing the voters.
Many observers fear it won't last.
But for now, the Russian public's attention is riveted on the more than 20 contenders vying for the job of mayor of Sochi, the once magnificent Soviet-era resort city on the Black Sea that was falling into oblivion (read story here) until then-President Vladimir Putin convinced the world to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics amid its nearby towering mountains and lush, subtropical beaches.
The Kremlin, which is footing much of the $12 billion bill for staging the Olympics in Sochi, had apparently hoped that the city's acting mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov, a solid member of the pro-government United Russia party, would simply walk back into the office in the April 26 polls without much fanfare.
But in recent days, almost two dozen candidates have piled in. Suddenly, it's become an interesting spectacle – and a real horse race.
The hopefuls include billionaire businessman Alexander Lebedev, who views himself as a "loyal oppositionist"; Sochi native and fierce Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov; the flamboyant ballerina and socialite Anastasia Volochkova; former presidential candidate Andrei Bogdanov; local arm-wrestling association leader Stanislav Koretsky; and Yelena Berkova, whose bodacious campaign commercial – vividly reported on nationwide Russian TV news – lends credence to media descriptions of her as a "famous porn star."
The ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party originally announced that it would field Andrei Lugovoi, the former KGB agent accused in Britain of the 2006 murder of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko. The party then withdrew his candidacy after deciding Mr. Lugovoi is too valuable in the State Duma, where he is already a deputy.
"These elections are a sign that Russians have become tired and bored with [Putin-era] 'managed democracy,' " says Pyotr Romanov, an expert with the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency. "Real politics is returning to our life ... real active politics, rather than the window-dressing we've had up until now."
At the center of attention are multiple scandals over the allegedly botched preparations for the Olympic games, including complaints about corruption, mass dislocation of local residents, serious environmental worries, and other concerns (detailed here).
"The people of Sochi are suffering terribly over the Olympics; it's a disaster," says Mr. Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and leader of the Solidarnost anti-Kremlin coalition. "Over 2,000 people have been evicted from their homes to make way for Olympic facilities, and there is no compensation for them so far."
Nemtsov says his candidacy has wrecked the Kremlin's hopes of keeping Sochi's dirty Olympic linen under wraps. He claims that he will highlight issues such as the $140 million-per-kilometer road building cost – "the most expensive roads in the world," he says – the destruction of the city's main beach to make way for a port that won't be used after the Olympic Games, and the massive damage allegedly being inflicted on the region's delicate alpine environment.
Mr. Lebedev, a liberal businessman and newspaper tycoon who recently purchased the London Evening Standard, told journalists that he is also running as an anticorruption alternative.
Some experts suggest the proliferation of candidates in recent days is part of a Kremlin attempt to overwhelm Nemtsov's bid with sheer numbers of colorful, attention-grabbing but politically insignificant candidates.
"What we see happening are enormous efforts by the authorities to oppose Nemtsov, which has the effect of making him the outstanding figure in this election. The authorities seem so fearful of destabilization that they are causing destabilization themselves," he says.
However, the outcome of the Sochi election a month hence could prove to be academic. A Kremlin-authored bill, which passed its first reading in the United Russia-controlled Duma last week, would give regional governors, who are appointed by the president, the right to fire any mayor for "failure to fulfill his duties."
Mr. Medvedev told journalists last week that the new law was needed to give authorities the tools to "remove criminal elements" from local positions of power.
According to the bill, the governor's decision to sack a mayor would have to be backed by a two-thirds vote of the local city council, but most of those – including Sochi's – are dominated by United Russia.