This is not just Russia's main and biggest city. Moscow is where about 80 percent of all Russian bank assets are concentrated, as well as huge portions of business, trade and almost everything else. To be ruler of Moscow is to have some degree of control over all these riches.

The current mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, has been the city's virtually unchallenged boss for more than a decade, presiding over its intricate and opaque economy. He has helped provide comparatively decent living standards for Muscovites and, despite rampant corruption and glaring income disparities in the Russian capital, he is admired by his constituents, who have provided him with a series of landslide victories.

Six years ago, Luzhkov had a party of his own and harbored ambitious plans to become a rival to Vladimir Putin. Though he has long since changed course and joined the pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, the Kremlin has never fully trusted him or reconciled itself to his rule over Russia's most attractive region.

Now that "problem" is being rectified. Putin's electoral reform earlier this year did away with the election of regional leaders. Instead, regions will be managed by Kremlin appointees, which means Luzhkov is likely to lose his post to a Kremlin-picked mayor.

But there will still be a need for a tame city legislature, and so, in elections held here Sunday, the people in authority did what was necessary to ensure one. Despite the high stakes and what should have been intense interest, this election only offered further evidence to the Russian people that democracy is nothing but dirty tricks and that their votes make no difference. The outcome of the voting was predictable and discouraging.

To be sure, an alliance of the two Russian liberal parties made it back to the political scene, rebounding from a crushing defeat two years ago, when neither of them -- Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces -- made it to the State Duma. In Sunday's voting for the Moscow city legislature, these democrats joined forces and overcame the 10 percent hurdle set for political parties wishing to be represented in the legislature.

But there's no great joy in the liberal camp. Although the elections may have had a facade of competition, they did nothing to affect the virtual monopoly of United Russia or the Kremlin's overwhelming control of political life.

The truth is that a kind of surrogate democracy has set in. In any regional as well as national campaign, the pro-Kremlin party is assured of tremendous advantages in financing, organization and media access. Meanwhile, the Kremlin manipulates other parties -- treating them as virtual puppets to be used for its own purposes, and taking them out of the race if they begin to get in the way. It manipulates court decisions and forces all political actors to constantly look over their shoulder. Those who opt for independence have to be careful lest they be thrown out of politics altogether.

Such practices are destroying what little trust in democratic processes the Russian public may still have. Even veteran liberal politicians who have spent years trying to convince the Russian people that voting matters are losing faith. "Today I don't believe either in a free judicial system or free elections," says Irina Khakamada, who quixotically ran against Putin in 2004.

One example of manipulative techniques in Sunday's elections was the removal of a nationalist party, Rodina, from the race only a few days before the vote. Rodina began as a surrogate, created by the Kremlin for the 2003 elections to win votes from the Communists, which it did. Rodina went on, however, to capitalize on growing nationalist sentiment, and it gained enough popularity to emerge as a serious political force.

The immediate cause of Rodina's expulsion was a racist television commercial by the party. But though the commercial was truly ugly, removal of the party was hardly driven by the Kremlin's desire to cleanse Russian politics of xenophobic ideology.

The Russian government has been at best indifferent to growing nationalism and did not even deign to condemn a fascist march in Moscow a month ago. But it moved to bar Rodina from the race, and it was able to do so in an exceptionally quick city court procedure -- confirmed within a few days by the Supreme Court.

With gigantic billboards, basically unlimited television access and smear campaigns against its liberal competitors -- but no serious discussion of city problems -- United Russia won 47 percent of the vote. With Rodina gone, the Communists got 17 percent -- about twice as much as they usually do in Moscow. The liberals took 11 percent but claimed that 3 percent was stolen from them as a result of the machinations of the pro-Kremlin party.

In the eventual distribution of seats, 28 will go to United Russia, four to the Communists and three to the democrats. Whoever is picked as the Moscow mayor will not have to worry about opposition as he manages the capital for the benefit of the Kremlin elite.

Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra journal, writes a monthly column for The Post.