Voters in Chita Oblast–an impoverished but strategically vital region in Russia’s Far East–went to the polls on October 29 to elect a new governor, a new regional duma and the heads of local government bodies. Five candidates ran for governor, including the incumbent, Ravil Geniatulin. His main rival was General Viktor Voitenko, former commander of the Trans-Baikal border district and now a deputy in the State Duma (Russian agencies, October 29).
At first glance, the elections in Chita passed off peacefully. There was none of the scandal which rocked Kursk Oblast, where the incumbent, Aleksandr Rutskoi, was removed from the ballot just fourteen hours before the polls opened. It would, however, be more accurate to say that the elections in Chita did not attract the attention of the national media, even though the media had identified Chita as one of the regions which President Putin and his team had targeted for a change of leadership. Voitenko was one of the gubernatorial candidates the Kremlin supported, along with Baltic Fleet commander Vladimir Yegorov in Kaliningrad Oblast, FSB General Kulakov in Voronezh Oblast and Army General Vladimir Shamanov, who earned a reputation for brutality during the most recent Chechen military campaign and is running in Ulyanovsk Oblast (Vremya novostei, October 24).
Reports out of Chita indicate that the election campaign was far from peaceful. Two weeks before polling day, Vladimir Melnikov, federal inspector in the oblast, sent an urgent telegram to Leonid Drachevsky, Putin’s representative in the Siberian federal district. Melnikov urged Drachevsky to inform the Kremlin about the situation in Chita and to ask the Central Election Commission to send a representative to the oblast. Melnikov said that the local election commission was out of its depth and incapable of ensuring that federal and regional election laws were observed. He claimed that dozens of people who had had run-ins with the law were standing as candidates for local government posts, and that electoral officials had made no effort to double check with the tax police on the information these candidates had provided concerning their finances and property (Ekstra [Chita], October 19).
What most alarmed Melnikov was the fact that the oblast election commission had turned a blind eye to the campaign’s biggest scandal: the October 5 police seizure from a local printing house of over 100,000 unregistered ballots for the gubernatorial contest. Melnikov clearly believed that members of the regional elite intended these “extra” ballot papers for fraudulent use. The fact that the incident was not investigated is a sign of the oblast leadership’s enduring influence over local election officials. Translated from bureaucratese into plain language, Melnikov’s complaint boiled down to an admission that the federal center, whose interests Melnikov represents, was powerless to control what happened in Chita.
In these circumstances, the election result was no surprise. According to preliminary returns, Geniatulin won some 58 percent of the votes–meaning that he won outright in the first round. Voitenko, the Kremlin’s candidate, got only 16 percent (Russian agencies, October 30). Nor was this the only Kremlin defeat in the recent elections. Rutskoi’s removal from power in Kursk Oblast was not a victory for the federal center, but the victory of a regional elite over a governor–Rutskoi–whom they despised.
RUSSIA’S GOVERNORS DO IT THEIR WAY.