What do the oligarch owner of the Evening Standard, possible murderer of renegade spy Alexander Litvinenko and a former deputy prime minister of Russia have in common? All three are entering the race to become mayor of a Black sea resort town with total population of 402,000. This town is Sochi and it will host the winter Olympics in 2014.
A Putin critic and high profile banker Alexander Lebedev who has recently purchased the Evening Standard, a UK daily newspaper, announced in his blog that he will be running for the mayor of Sochi. Earlier this week, Boris Nemtsov, a vice prime minister under Yeltsin and an opposition leader under Putin, also announced his intention to run for mayor. Both Nemstov and Lebedev claimed that many Sochi residents appealed for them to run for town mayor by commenting on their respective blogs (we're not kidding!), asking them to "fix this town!" Andrey Lugovoy, a KGB officer turned possible murderer wanted for questioning by Scotland Yard turned Russian congressman has also joined the race, though without the warm invite.
There is a reason for such a tightly packed lineup. In Russia, mayoral elections are the only elections left. Governors are appointed by the President, senators are appointed by the President, and congressmen are elected based on their political party affiliations (read - appointed by the President). The only reason mayoral elections were left untouched was that nobody could foresee that it might be important. And voila -- the city which hosts the Olympics in 2014 and becomes a showcase of Russian international standing over the next five years is up for grabs. That elevates the mayoral election in a small resort town of Sochi to the national level. Whoever wins the race will have influence over the most massive construction effort in Russia since Baikal Amur Mainline, a railroad across Eastern Siberia which was built in the thirties by half of the Soviet Union's students and all of the Soviet Union's prisoners. The federal government will have no choice but to make friends with the new mayor.
Both Nemtsov and Lebedev (Lugovoy maintains professional silence) have speculated that they will not be allowed to run, which they most likely won't be. In the eyes of the government they are trying to take the Olympics hostage. Lugovoy could make a much better mayor. After all, he is more likely to stay in Sochi and not to travel outside of Russia much (he is still wanted for questioning about Litivnenko's polonium poisoning.)
Follow Russia Magazine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/russiamagazine