Sept.8 - Polling stations open in the Russian capital Moscow in the first vote after political reforms passed in 2012 reinstated direct mayoral elections. Rough Cut. (No Reporter Narration).
ROUGH CUT (NO REPORTER NARRATION) STORY: Polls opened in the Russian capital at 0400 GMT on Sunday (September 8) as Moscow held its first direct mayoral elections in a decade. The vote, seen as a barometer of the mood of protest in Moscow, is expected to show whether political opposition to the government of President Vladimir Putin is capable of mounting an electoral challenge. Six candidates are fighting for the right to control Russia's biggest and wealthiest city, including charismatic Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, 37. Although most mayors in Russia are elected, the mayors of Moscow and Russia's second city St. Petersburg share the same status as governors, who were appointed by the Kremlin until political reforms passed in 2012 reinstated direct elections. Current mayor Sergei Sobyanin, 55, appointed by the Kremlin in 2010, has refused to take part in election debates with his rivals, and said he will not hold any election rallies. He has instead let his work as mayor since 2010 do the talking for him. Navalny, who made his name as an anti-corruption campaigner, launched an aggressive election campaign criss-crossing Moscow every day and holding up to 10 meetings with voters daily. He also has a five-year prison sentence hanging over him, pending an appeal. After a trial that he and his supporters say was politically motivated, Navalny was convicted in July of stealing timber from a state firm and sentenced to five years in prison. In a highly unusual ruling, a judge released him on bail the following day. Many political observers say the Kremlin wanted Navalny to run in Moscow because it expected him to be humiliated, and believed this would remove him as a political threat. But Navalny's campaign has had more impact than expected and the gamble is in danger of backfiring on the Kremlin, even though its candidate Sergei Sobyanin is still expected to win. The Kremlin denies manipulating elections and dismisses allegations by Navalny that the Moscow ballot will be rigged against him. It holds up the fact that he is running as evidence that it is an open race.