Stonewalling Nemtsov in Sochi

The Other Russia reports:

Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician running for mayor in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, is facing stiff resistance on the campaign trail.  But the pressure isn’t coming from the 12 other candidates who have so far tossed their hats in the ring.  Nemtsov, a board member of the Solidarity movement, has instead been beset with pranks, provocations, and what seems to be a local unsaid order to stonewall his effort.

First, Nemtsov, 49, was barred by police from attending a public meeting of local businessmen on March 17th, according to the Interfax news agency.   The former Deputy Prime Minister and governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region wasn’t intending to speak, but officers stopped him at the door, insisting that prior registration was required.  Despite vocal protests from a group of participants that prior registration was not necessary, Nemtsov was not allowed in.

Next, a mock debate of four mayoral candidates scheduled to run on March 22nd was pulled from the NTV television station.  Writing in his LiveJournal blog, Nemtsov alleged that the clip was cut on personal order of Vladislav Surkov, a close aide to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.  Instead of the 7 minute segment, which asked candidates to explain their positions and delved into the Sochi election, the channel repeated a program on “young stars of show-business.”

Finally, unknown youngsters splashed the politician with a liquid smelling strongly of ammonia Monday, according to the Ekho Moskvy radio station.  Nemtsov, on his way to a press-conference, was sprayed in the face, and had to postpone his event to wash his eyes clean.  Ilya Yashin, a top figure in Nemtsov’s campaign, was also soaked, and blamed the provocation on the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement.  Nemtsov himself commented that authorities were simply scared of his candidacy.

Sochi, scheduled to host the 2014 winter Olympics, saw two mayors resign in 2008.  Residents have complained that Olympic preparations have been handled in a corrupt way, and that locals have been forced out of their homes to make way for construction projects.  Whoever becomes mayor will have to handle a multi-billion dollar budget allocated to create an Olympic village.

For his part, Nemtsov has proposed decentralizing the games, and holding only the opening and closing ceremonies in Sochi.  In an open letter to President Dmitri Medvedev (Rus), who is visiting the region, Nemtsov suggested that the burden of the Games should be spread between roughly a dozen cities.  Sochi does not have the necessary infrastructure to host the games, Nemtsov argues, adding that the budget for the Sochi Olympics is vastly higher than previous Winter Games.  The environmental effects on Sochi may also be devastating, he notes.

Nemtsov, who was born and raised in Sochi, said he decided to run for mayor after a group of residents wrote him an open letter asking that he enter the race.  Aside from Nemtsov, several other colorful figures have stepped forward, including murder suspect and Parliamentarian Andrei Lugovoi, and billionaire Alexander Lebedev.  Other contenders include an airline chief, an arm wrestling champion and a former ballerina, a combination that has sparked considerable country-wide interest in the election.

Anatoly Pakhomov, a member of the United Russia and the city’s acting mayor, is thought to have high chances due to his connections with the majority party.

The weeks leading up to the April 26th elections will undoubtedly see further issues and problems for Boris Nemtsov.  Despite the set-backs, the Kremlin critic has drawn out a plan of localized campaigning and maintains a cheerful disposition.

The Moscow Times reports that the Kremlin may be attempting to seed Nemtsov’s campaign with bogus foreign donations so it can disqualify him on that basis:

A mysterious campaign contribution from a New York man could scuttle opposition politician Boris Nemtsov’s bid in the increasingly bizarre mayoral race in the Black Sea resort Sochi, which is to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Nemtsov received a $5,000 wire transfer on his bank account from a business registered near the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY.  His campaign called the bank transfer a “Kremlin provocation” to keep him off the Sochi ballot under an election rule forbidding candidates from accepting campaign contributions from abroad. Nemtsov sent the money back to the United States on Friday afternoon, his press secretary told RIA Novosti.

A scanned copy of the invoice obtained by The Moscow Times showed that the money was credited to Nemtsov’s account with Sberbank on Wednesday from a Brooklyn-registered company called GBR Business Consulting. According to New York State public records, the company is registered to an apartment in near Brighton Beach, home to a large Russian-speaking community.  The Internet telephone directory White Pages lists the apartment under the name Boris Glickstein, the same name given as a contact for a nearby Brighton Beach car dealership, Kings Jaguar.

Reached by telephone Friday at Kings Jaguar, Glickstein confirmed to The Moscow Times that he had wired money to Nemtsov’s bank account after he was “asked to make a contribution” by Nemtsov’s campaign.  “Yes, I transferred the money,” Glickstein, speaking Russian, told The Moscow Times. “Don’t discuss it with me, discuss it with them.”  Asked what he meant by “them,” Glickstein said he meant Nemtsov’s campaign team. “I was asked to make a contribution,” he said, adding that he did not remember when or by whom.  When told that candidates are not allowed to use campaign contributions from abroad, Glickstein said: “Well, let them return it then.”  “I do not have time to talk,” Glickstein said tersely before hanging up.

Opposition politicians have repeatedly accused election officials of manipulating election registration documents to keep them from running in elections.  A common tactic, Kremlin critics say, is to rule invalid signatures from supporters that prospective candidates are often required to submit to get on the ballots.  Mayoral candidates in the April 26 Sochi election, however, had the option of submitting a deposit of 282,000 rubles ($8,400) to join the race, which Nemtsov said he did in order to avoid being kept out of the election on technicalities.

Nemtsov, a Sochi native, told The Moscow Times in a telephone interview Friday that he had never heard of Boris Glickstein.  “I don’t know this person. It is a provocation,” Nemtsov said.  The wire transfer came from an account with the bank JPMorgan Chase, according to the scanned copy of the invoice. Nemtsov said his campaign would ask JPMorgan Chase to investigate the origins of the money.  Similar complaints will be sent to banks from which other such murky money transfers are made to his bank account, Nemtsov said.

Nemtsov’s spokeswoman, Olga Shorina, said the mysterious money was “absolutely a Kremlin provocation.”  A woman who answered the telephone at the Kremlin press service Friday said she would not comment.  Shorina said Nemtsov’s campaign first learned of the wire transfer from a report on the web site, and that the money would be returned.  The head of the Sochi elections commission, Yury Rykov, showed the copy of the invoice to a news conference Friday, editor Anton Smertin told The Moscow Times in a telephone interview from Krasnodar.  A spokeswoman for Sochi elections commission told The Moscow Times that election officials were aware of the wire transfer but that it would only be an election violation if Nemtsov used the money.

The Sochi mayoral election has become one of the year’s most intriguing political events, with several high-profile candidates joining the race. The field includes businessman Alexander Lebedev and former Bolshoi Theater ballerina Anastasia Volochkova.  The next Sochi mayor will have a strong say over how the government will spend billions of dollars to build infrastructure for the Olympics. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, who oversees the preparations for the event, said recently that the Olympics budget amounts to more than 200 billion rubles ($5.7 billion).  The Sochi vote could be a test for Solidarity, a loose umbrella opposition group formed in December and led by Nemtsov. After popular elections for governors were cancelled in 2004, mayoral elections allow the opposition perhaps its only chance to participate in big politics.

Unidentified assailants ambushed Nemtsov on Monday, pouring ammonia over him as he made his way to a news conference in Sochi, the candidate and his supporters said. Nemtsov blamed the attack on the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, which is notorious for similar guerilla political stunts.  Nashi said in a statement this week that it intended to sue Nemtsov for libel and is seeking 1 million rubles ($30,000) in damages.

Four candidates were kicked out of the race on the grounds that they did not submit all of the necessary registration documents, the Sochi elections commission said Friday, Interfax reported.

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