In a land where a colorful politician is a different shade of gray, Aleksandr Vladimirovich Rutskoi is day-glo metallic. The 53-year-old governor of the southern “Red belt” region of Kursk, for which the submarine was named, is a retired Air Force general, a hero of the Afghan war (he was shot down twice and held as a POW in Pakistan), and the first and only vice president of Russia. With his Stalin-style mustache and non-com’s lingo, Rutskoi makes tough-guy Aleksandr Lebed, the paratrooper who governs Krasnoyarsk, look like Adlai Stevenson.
In August 1991, while a member of the Congress of People’s Deputies, Rutskoi stood against the back-to-Brezhnev hard-liners and founded the “Democratic Party of Communists of Russia.” He brought military-industrial interests into the ranks of Boris Yeltsin’s supporters, and Yeltsin made him vice president.
But Rutskoi was too independent, too hotheaded, perhaps too honest and certainly too impressed with his own press releases to remain in Yeltsin’s shadow. He could not watch as Yeltsin’s economic team–“urchins in pink shorts and yellow sneakers,” he called them–destroyed the economy with inflation and turned the military to rabble. In 1993, with Ruslan Khasbulatov, the Speaker of the Congress of People’s Deputies, he led a parliamentary uprising against Yeltsin’s rule. The army stayed loyal to the president, the rebellion failed and Rutskoi spent several months in Lefortovo prison. When the new parliament granted him and others amnesty, he returned to politics, losing an election for the Duma in 1995 and then defeating a Kremlin-backed incumbent to become governor of Kursk Oblast in 1996.
Since then, two presidents and six prime ministers have held power in Moscow, but the Kremlin’s enmity towards Rutskoi has not diminished. With Rutskoi standing as an incumbent in elections set for October 22, a court decision on October 21 bounced him off the ballot. An opponent charged Rutskoi with failing to declare ownership of a 1994 Volga sedan on his financial-disclosure statement. Rutskoi, who denies the charge, has appealed both in the courts and to the Central Election Commission in Moscow. Meanwhile, a run-off on November 5 will choose between a local Communist and a Federal Security Service (FSB) officer who holds a federal appointment in the region.Rutskoi accuses the Kremlin of engineering the judicial coup that denied him a place on the ballot, and the Kremlin has not denied it. But the governor has plenty of local enemies too. He came to Kursk as an outsider, and the regional bigwigs resented and resisted his efforts to gain control over local industries and media outlets. When the regional legislature opposed him early in his term, Rutskoi, proving that where you stand is where you sit, tried to dissolve it. Unlike Boris Yeltsin in 1993, he had no army, and he failed. He has had to live with the antagonism ever since.
Even more than the Kremlin, the local bigwigs seem to be the winners here. Their candidate, the Communist Viktor Surzhikov, is likely to be elected governor a week from Sunday. The losers seem to be Rutskoi, the judicial system, the electoral system, and democracy.