Putin Ally Set to Defeat Top Critic Navalny for Moscow Mayor

President Vladimir Putin’s ally is poised for a decisive win in Moscow’s mayoral vote as Alexey Navalny, who led anti-government protests in the city, struggles to challenge his rival’s stewardship of the Russian capital.

Acting Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, appointed by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 before resigning in June to call the Sept. 8 ballot, will get 62.2 percent in Moscow’s first direct elections in a decade, state-run pollster VTsIOM predicts. Anti-corruption activist Navalny will get 15.7 percent, it said.

The race pits the Russian authorities against an opposition candidate in Moscow for the first time since Putin’s 2012 re-election ignited a wave of demonstrations in Europe’s biggest city. While Navalny has set his sights on the 2018 presidential ballot, his anti-graft platform isn’t a threat to Sobyanin, whose tenure has focused on improving Muscovites’ living conditions rather than politics.

“Russians are always ready to vote for the authorities unless the authorities have given them compelling reasons to do otherwise,” Alexander Oslon, president of the Moscow-based Public Opinion Fund, said yesterday by phone. “Moscow’s economy is doing well, the city’s become cleaner under Sobyanin and there’s no glaring reason to be disgruntled.”

Direct gubernatorial elections were restored after tens of thousands took to the streets in the biggest demonstrations of Putin’s rule. He won 48 percent of votes in Moscow in his re-election last year, less than anywhere else in the country.

Predecessor Ousted

About 48 percent of Muscovites will turn out for the vote, which features another four candidates, Valery Fedorov, VTsIOM’s director, said Sept. 2.

Since taking over as mayor from Yury Luzhkov, who was ousted by Medvedev, Sobyanin, 55, has sought to ease Moscow’s traffic congestion and revamp infrastructure such as public parks. He served as a deputy prime minister in 2008 to 2010 as Putin completed a four-year stint as premier before reclaiming the presidency.

Sobyanin’s platform consists of “solving transport problems, creating a comfortable city, developing education, health care, social security and safety, fighting illegal immigration, boosting transparency and holding city officials accountable,” according to his website.

Luzhkov oversaw a construction boom during his 18 years in office, with his billionaire wife, who controlled a building company, becoming Russia’s richest woman. In the last Moscow election in 2003, he defeated newspaper tycoon Alexander Lebedev, who won 13 percent backing.

Economic Clout

Moscow, a city of 12 million people, has a $50 billion budget and accounts for about a quarter of Russia’s gross domestic product, official data show. The city plans to sell as much as 160 billion rubles ($4.8 billion) of debt by year-end to trim borrowing costs, according to the Moscow finance department. Its three-year bonds due 2016 yielded 7.49 percent today, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Navalny, who raised about $3 million for his mayoral campaign, has pledged to reduce corruption, make Moscow’s government more efficient and rein in illegal immigration, a theme Sobyanin has also pursued.

He’s courted bankers from OAO Sberbank and Deutsche Bank AG at a dinner at Moscow’s Ritz Carlton hotel and last month won the backing of 38 Russian Internet entrepreneurs, who endorsed his candidacy in a manifesto that called for the rule of law to be upheld and government officials held accountable.

Daughters’ Flats

Navalny, 37, has also sought to challenge Sobyanin’s credibility, asserting in August blog postings that two of the acting mayor’s daughters own apartments worth $3.5 million and $5 million. Sobyanin said the property holdings are legal.

Navalny’s participation in the Moscow ballot had been in doubt after a court in the city of Kirov sentenced him in July to five years in prison for defrauding a state timber company. He was released a day later pending appeal after thousands protested in Moscow and other major cities. If upheld, the conviction would preclude him from ever holding public office.

“This gentleman has taken on the very fashionable theme of fighting corruption and I say again, in order to fight corruption you have to be crystal clear yourself,” Putin said in a Sept. 3 interview with the Associated Press and state-run Channel One. “But there are problems here, and in this regard I unfortunately have a suspicion that this is just a way of getting votes and not a genuine desire to solve the problem.”

Guriev, Kasparov

Putin, 60, has intensified a crackdown on the opposition since winning his latest six-year term, tightening rules for foreign-funded non-government organizations and imprisoning protesters. A top economist, Sergei Guriev and former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, critics fearing prosecution, fled Russia this year.

Jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky called on Muscovites to vote for Navalny to ensure his electoral popularity prevents the authorities from upholding his prison sentence.

“I am sure that Alexey Navalny will not be allowed to become a mayor, but a million of your voices may save the person from rotting in jail,” Khodorkovsky said in a statement e-mailed by his defense team.

While analysts including Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Policy Foundation in Moscow, have suggested Sobyanin may become a candidate to replace Putin in 2018 elections, the Moscow mayoral battle may prove to be a launch pad for an assault by Navalny on the higher echelons of power.

‘Disgusting, Corrupt’

“My ambitions are to change my country and I’m ready to take part in presidential elections,” Navalny said last week. He’s vowed in the past to imprison Putin and his billionaire allies if he comes to power, labeling the current political set-up as a “disgusting, corrupt system.”

For now, the very fact he’s able to take on Sobyanin is a sign of political progress, according to Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation.

“This is the first competitive federal election since Putin came to power,” he said by yesterday phone from Moscow. “For Navalny, the result isn’t as important as his ability to exit on an emotional high because this clearly won’t be his last or biggest campaign.”

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