Putin critic Lebedev’s mayoral bid blocked by Russian court

A Russian court yesterday ruled that Alexander Lebedev, the oligarch and owner of London’s Evening Standard newspaper, was ineligible to stand for mayor in the southern Russian city of Sochi, which will host the Winter Olympics in 2014.

Mr Lebedev, a former KGB agent, frequently criticises the Russian government and owns shares in an opposition newspaper. He had planned to stand against Anatoly Pakhomov, the acting mayor and member of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, in the 26 April vote. The election had been shaping up to be the most competitive in Russia for years, with both Mr Lebedev and Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and now a critic of the Kremlin, in contention.

Mr Lebedev’s spokesman Artyom Artyomov called the court’s decision, based on a technicality, “absolute nonsense and completely impossible to implement”, and said that his candidate would continue his campaign as normal. “This is a desperate attempt to get rid of the only serious challenger and it’s completely illegal. After this publicity, I am certain that Lebedev will become mayor.”

With a tight Kremlin grip on presidential and parliamentary elections, and regional leaders appointed directly by Moscow, mayoral elections are the last political arena in Russia where political competition is possible. The Sochi election is particularly sensitive, as whoever takes up the post will have to prepare the city for the 2014 Winter Olympics. With that huge responsibility, will come a vast budget and a great deal of international media exposure.

The importance of the post drew several high-profile candidates to throw their hats into the ring, as well as some more bizarre challengers. In the early days of the campaign, those who stated a desire to run included a porn star, Russia’s most famous ballerina, and Andrei Lugovoi, the man accused by Britain of poisoning dissident Alexander Litvinenko with polonium. The field of 26 hopefuls was reduced to a shortlist of nine candidates last week, including Mr Lebedev.