Page last updated at 08:37 GMT, Sunday, 26 April 2009 09:37 UK

Russian democracy under scrutiny in Sochi

Man reads election leaflet in Sochi
Sochi's new mayor will have to prepare the city for the 2014 Winter Olympics

By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Moscow

The people of the southern Russian city of Sochi are voting for a new mayor who will run the city right the way through to the Winter Olympics in 2014.

While an election in a small city on the Black Sea coast would seem a strange focus of international media attention, there is much at stake - including Russia's reputation.

What is at stake is too important for Vladimir Putin to allow any unexpected surprises
Nikolay Petrov, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow

The 2014 Olympics will the first Winter Games to be hosted in Russia, and it was the country's former president and current Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, who pushed hard to make the Sochi bid successful.

The new mayor will play a vital role as billions of dollars pour into construction projects in Sochi to turn it into an Olympic city.

A huge amount of work remains to be done including building new roads and hotels.

But it is Russia's democratic credentials which have come under particular scrutiny during this election campaign.

'Early voting'

The main opposition candidate, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemstov, has accused the government of fixing the election to ensure Anatoly Pakhomov, the candidate of Mr Putin's ruling United Russia party wins.

Boris Nemtsov (6 April 2009)
Mr Nemtsov served twice as deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin

"The secret services are completed involved in this election," he told the BBC. "They arrested my advisers and friends and took my election leaflets.

"People are very afraid to support me openly, even my relatives."

Opposition groups and experts have also expressed concern at the large number of civil servants, including doctors and teachers, who have been taken to polling stations in buses to vote early, even though the election is on Sunday.

They fear they have been put under pressure to vote for the ruling party candidate.

"Early voting has been going on on a big scale," says Nikolay Petrov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow.

"Early voting can be more easily controlled. Directors tell [the civil servants] to show their ballot papers before voting."

High stakes

One local resident also told the BBC that people had come round to his house offering him money to vote for the ruling party.

"In the majority of cases, municipal elections are staged from the very beginning," Mr Petrov says.

Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev enjoy the snow in Sochi (3 January 2009)
Vladimir Putin pushed hard to make the Sochi bid successful while president

"What is at stake [in Sochi] is too important for Vladimir Putin to allow any unexpected surprises."

It certainly would be embarrassing for the prime minister if Mr Nemtsov were to become mayor of Sochi.

Mr Nemtsov is a fierce opponent of the Kremlin and is highly critical of the amount of money being spent on the Olympics, suggesting some events should be moved to other cities.

He believes he has only been able to take part in the election - unlike several other candidates who have been disqualified - to give it the appearance of a democratic contest.

No-one from the Sochi election commission or the United Russia party was prepared to be interviewed for this article in order to respond to the allegations of electoral fraud.

But a Kremlin spokesman did refer us to an earlier interview given by President Dmitry Medvedev to a Russian newspaper, in which he described the Sochi election campaign as a vigorous political battle which would help democracy in Russia.

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