MOSCOW, Russia — It may have been the opposition’s best chance to finally prove its mettle at the ballot box. As candidates prepared to run in the capital’s first mayoral elections in nearly a decade, anticipation mounted over Kremlin critics' opportunity to unite behind a single candidate.
Throw in an oligarch and incumbent Mayor Sergei Sobyanin — seen as a possible Kremlin pick to succeed President Vladimir Putin one day — and Muscovites had the makings of a lively if pre-ordained race.
“Sobyanin’s victory is clear,” says Alexander Kynev of the Foundation for Information Policy Development. “The question was by how much and whether the opposition can make a public impression during the campaign.”
Instead, the campaign leading to the vote in September appears to have become a good window into Russian politics as usual: the powerful establishment crushing its bickering opposition.
The buzz began earlier this month, when Sobyanin abruptly resigned, forcing snap elections in which he would run as an independent. Analysts speculated his move was designed to circumvent growing discontent by avoiding scheduled elections in 2015.
That vote was a concession last year by then-President Dmitry Medvedev to a once-burgeoning protest movement. Putin had abolished direct elections for Moscow mayor and regional governors in 2004, ostensibly to shore up national security after the Beslan school hostage crisis.
All eyes turned to two of Russia’s most visible politicians: anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and billionaire playboy-cum-politician Mikhail Prokhorov.
As the opposition movement’s main leader, Navalny has seen his recognition soar as his nickname for the ruling United Russia Party — “the party of crooks and thieves” — found currency with around 40 percent of the population.
Prokhorov, owner of the Brooklyn Nets and once Russia’s richest man, has grown increasingly outspoken in recent months. Seen as the so-called middle-class protest candidate when he ran for president last year, he secured around 20 percent of the vote among Muscovites, compared to Putin’s 47 percent.
But the nickel tycoon’s supporters were disappointed last week, when he announced his Civic Platform Party would nominate no one for mayor.
Claiming the results were “predetermined in advance,” Prokhorov said his party would instead concentrate on the Moscow’s city council elections next fall.
Some blamed Prokhorov’s limited political maneuverability. Widely seen to be dependent on the authorities’ good will, he has largely refrained from openly criticizing Putin himself.
Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, a onetime Kremlin advisor, says the billionaire is “very vulnerable to Kremlin pressure.”
“Prokhorov isn’t a pure politician,” he said. “I don’t see any political instincts in him.”
Others believe he serves the Kremlin’s interests by siphoning off opposition votes.
In any case, it was unclear whether Prokhorov would be able to sell his foreign property in time to run to comply with a new law forbidding officials from holding assets abroad.
Navalny, who says he's running, faces obstacles of his own. Currently on trial for allegedly embezzling $500,000 worth of timber from a state firm in a case critics say is payback for his activism, he would be barred from holding public office if convicted.
He is forging ahead nevertheless, having secured an official nomination from a liberal coalition anchored by an alliance between the Republican Party and People’s Freedom Party (RP-Parnas).
He has also courted the respected liberal economist Sergei Guriev — who made headlines by fleeing Russia in April for fear of political persecution for his views — to become his economic adviser.
However, observers point to another major hurdle: the so-called municipal filter.
To stand for election, candidates must collect the signatures of at least 6 percent of city legislators from at least three-quarters of Moscow’s 146 districts. The total adds up to 110 names, a tall order in a city whose councils are stocked with Kremlin loyalists.
Although the Coordinating Council, the opposition's organizational wing, finally announced on Tuesday it would back Navalny, critics argue he isn’t the united opposition candidate his supporters claim he is.
Navalny's nomination left other opposition leaders, including veteran Yabloko Party leader Sergei Mitrokhin and firebrand leftist Sergei Udaltsov, to run by themselves.
Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister and head of the liberal Democratic Choice Party, slammed Navalny’s nomination as a short-sighted rush to field a candidate, saying victories in next year’s city council elections are far more realistic.
“The opposition doesn’t have the resources to run two election campaigns in a row, and an expensive mayoral campaign against the clear favorite, Sobyanin, could undermine the campaign for the Moscow city council,” he wrote Monday for the website Gazeta.ru.
The latest poll numbers are grim reading for Navalny. A survey by the independent Levada Center gave him a mere 3 percent of the vote. Prokhorov, should he have decided to run, would have secured 12 percent, Levada found.
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Sobyanin, for his part, is projected to pull in around 45 percent, the result of what analysts say is the most reliable trick in the bag: genuine popular support. Recent polls have given the mayor an approval rating of around 50 percent.
Pavel Salin, head of the Center for Political Studies at the government’s Finance University, believes his image as a “solid manager” may hand him an easy victory.
“Someone with a proven track record of solving everyday issues will be voted into office,” he said. “Even some of those who came out to Bolotnaya Square [the site of major anti-Kremlin protests] will vote for Sobyanin because there's simply no other alternative.”