For a largely anonymous rubber-stamp body, the Moscow City legislature is generating unlikely interest and suspense ahead of a Sunday election -- although not about who will win.
The majority party is certain to be the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, according to opinion polls, which show it winning more than 40 percent of the vote and most other major parties barely reaching double digits.
With the winner preordained, political discussion here is being animated by other issues: the future of the city's powerful mayor, Yuri Luzhkov; the hopes of Russia's small pro-Western liberal movement that it can raise itself from the dead before national parliamentary elections in 2007; and the significance of the nationalist Rodina party getting tossed off the ballot by the courts on the grounds that it had run racist political ads.
For more than a decade, Luzhkov has presided over Moscow's transformation into a swaggering metropolis that has soaked up much of the country's capital. The mayor is widely beloved among Muscovites for his can-do image. But he has wary relations with the Kremlin, particularly President Vladimir Putin, who in 2000 won the top office that Luzhkov had wanted for himself.
The mayor is heading the United Russia ticket in Sunday's vote, and the party has largely built its campaign around his popularity. "We have Luzhkov and people who have their photo taken with Luzhkov," said Alexander Lebedev, a United Russia member of the national parliament who once lost a mayoral race to Luzhkov. "There is no substance to the campaign."
In Russia, politicians often fear politically motivated prosecution after they leave office. Many analysts see that as a prime concern for Luzhkov in this vote.
There are clear signs that he will step down as mayor when his term ends in 2007 -- even though he heads the party list for the vote, few people expect him to actually take a seat on the city council. Three of his closest aides have been transferred to new jobs in the provinces, and Luzhkov's wife, Yelena Baturina, who is Russia's only female billionaire, has been divesting herself of her huge interests in the capital, particularly in construction, in which she benefited from city contracts.
Analysts predict a strong showing by United Russia, which is running a slate of Luzhkov loyalists, and say it will be key to the political terms of the mayor's departure. In Moscow, the new city parliament will be required to approve or reject the Kremlin's choice for the next mayor -- Putin has eliminated the direct election of regional leaders -- and having many allies in the body will give Luzhkov leverage in dealing with the Kremlin.
"It's important for him to be able to negotiate the conditions on which he will go out," said Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "He has been considered an enemy of Putin, and Putin has a long memory. With all his interests, he should be sure he will be safe when he leaves."
Luzhkov will have additional sway with the Kremlin because with parliamentary elections in 2007 and a presidential election a year later, it will want to keep him contented even as it pushes him aside. The Kremlin knows that a disgruntled Luzhkov, who runs a Tammany Hall-type political machine that can deliver votes, could play havoc with its electoral ambitions.
Russia's small liberal parties, which advocate open, Western-style democracy for the country, are also at a critical juncture. Both the Yabloko party and the Union of Right Forces, which have a history of mutual enmity, failed to win seats in the national parliament in the previous elections, in 2003.
Under a new law, parties can no longer form electoral coalitions. So members of several small parties, including the Union of Right Forces, have agreed to run under the Yabloko banner. Party leaders hope the strategy will get Yabloko, the Union of Right Forces and their allies back into the national parliament in 2007.
But first they must get into the Moscow City parliament. Fifteen seats in the 35-seat body are elected directly, but the other 20 are awarded proportionally to parties that get 10 percent or more of the vote, the highest such threshold in Russia. Parties that poll less than 10 percent are frozen out.
"If this election is not successful, which means we don't at least get over 10 percent of the vote, it will be very difficult to mobilize our people again, to justify a coalition," said Yabloko's leader, Grigory Yavlinsky.
Others say the consequences could be even more dire. "If Yabloko's list doesn't get 10 percent, it will be almost a death for the party," Petrov, the Carnegie analyst, said.
According to a poll of 1,000 likely voters by the independent Levada Center, Yabloko and the Rodina party each have the support of 14 percent of the electorate. But Yabloko, whose supporters have a history of not bothering to vote, will need a high turnout to ensure success.
Rodina was removed from the ballot after one of its television spots was found by the courts to have incited ethnic hatred. The ad shows four men, who appear to be from the Caucasus region or former Soviet republics to the south, eating watermelon in a Moscow park and throwing the rinds on the ground.
Two men, one of them Dmitry Rogozin, the Rodina leader, then appear and order the men to pick up the trash. The ad ends with the slogan, "Let's rid our city of garbage."
The party lost a final appeal to the Supreme Court on Friday. The complaint against Rodina was filed by the Liberal Democratic Party, itself nationalist and anti-immigrant but likely to benefit from Rodina's exclusion.
The Liberal Democrats and the Communist Party are each projected to get about 10 percent of the vote, just on the cusp of making it into the parliament, according to the Levada Center survey.
Rogozin has accused the Liberal Democrats of acting as a surrogate for United Russia in filing the complaint, saying United Russia fears Rodina's emergence as a potent political force.
Rodina, or Motherland, was created by Kremlin strategists in 2003 to siphon off votes from the Communists, but its populism and xenophobia have begun to resonate with some voters, making it suddenly more of a competitor and less of a puppet.
"The fight is not over," Rogozin said after the Supreme Court decision Friday evening. "This is just the beginning."