Although Russia’s transition to democracy is understandably going through fits and starts, the July 4 and 19 mayoral elections in Vladivostok highlighted the true rot that exists in the Primorye region. Ultimately Vladimir Nikolayev, director of the fishing and shipping concern TURNIF, was elected mayor of Vladivostok with 53% of the vote in the second round of the elections. Second place went to the choice “against all,” which garnered 37% of the vote.
Nikolayev is affiliated with the pro-Kremlin United Russia party and is a close ally of the governor of Primorye, Sergei Darkin, also a business leader from the fishing industry. In 1999 Nikolayev, who has a seat on the local legislature, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for beating one local official and threatening to kill another. His sentence was later reduced as part of a wider amnesty.
Nikolayev’s closest competitor in the first round of the elections was former mayor and current State Duma member Viktor Cherepkov. Both candidates received 27% of the votes on the initial July 4 ballot, but a local court disqualified Cherepkov from the runoff on grounds of illegal campaigning. The decision came one day after Cherepkov was wounded in a grenade explosion outside of his office. Cherepkov was similarly banned before the second round of the 2001 gubernatorial election, clearing the way for Sergei Darkin to be elected. Cherepkov was the target of intimidation during that election, as well as during the 1995 gubernatorial election. Yuri Kopylov, Vladivostok’s incumbent mayor, and Alexander Perednya, a State Duma member, both declined to take Cherepkov’s place in the second round of the elections, calling the whole process a “farce” (Deita.ru, July 15).
Ironically, during the 2001 gubernatorial election Darkin spent much of his campaign deflecting accusations that he was closely tied to a criminal leader widely known at the time as “Winnie the Pooh.” Pooh Bear is, in fact, none other than Vladivostok’s new mayor: Vladimir Nikolayev. Organized crime is widely known to dominate the region’s fishing industry. Occasionally fishing turf wars even spill into the streets of Hokkaido in northern Japan, where Russian criminal elements maintain ties with Japanese criminal organizations.
In recent years Nikolayev has tried to cultivate an image of a Good Samaritan by rebuilding some of the city’s crumbling buildings and by donating fish to beleaguered groups such as teachers and doctors (Moscow Times, July 6). Nikolayev was accused of buying votes in his latest campaign through the disbursement of cash and food to voters. He also was accused of funding a youth organization that illegally campaigned for him outside polling stations, and also of busing in unregistered voters to cast ballots (RFE/RL, July 28). Regional prosecutors refused to investigate any of these accusations.
Meanwhile, members of the Primorye legislature tried to convene an emergency session to discuss the electoral situation, but the effort failed due to the lack of a quorum. The deputies had planned to file an appeal to Vladimir Putin and the Central Electoral Commission, asking for an annulment of the elections results (Vladivostok News, Vostok Media, July 15). On July 8 (two days before the attack on Cherepkov) an official from the Election Commission insisted that no irregularities had been observed in the first round. But one week later, the Commission changed its tune. Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov announced that the elections in Vladivostok were testimony to the “crisis” in the city, and that the regional leadership was incapable of dealing with this crisis in a “democratic way.” Veshnyakov suggested that if the local population was unhappy with the situation, they should fill in the “against all” box on the ballot. Veshnyakov promised to annul the elections if that category received over 50%. Echoing Veshnyakov’s skepticism, Far Eastern Presidential Representative Konstantin Pulikovsky suggested that the elections reflected the “criminal thrust” for power in Primorye. The elections also struck a chord in the State Duma in Moscow, where the leader of the Rodina party, Dmitri Rogozin, decried the results, stating that he believed that this form of politics represents a threat to the territorial integrity of Russia itself (Novoe Vremya, July 25).
The Kremlin, meanwhile, remains silent. Like Yeltsin, Putin’s response to the problems in the Far East seems to be to ignore them. In 2001 Putin forced out the long-standing governor of Primorye, Yevgenii Nazdratenko, who ruled the region with an iron (and some say corrupt) fist for many years. But Nazdratenko was rewarded with two successive, prestigious (if merely symbolic) posts in Moscow, where he remains today. Since that time Putin has rarely intervened in the political situation in Primorye, despite the continuing problems, such as the failure to provide the region’s citizens with basic social services. On his Far Eastern travels Putin prefers to visit Sakhalin, an emerging success story, due mainly to the massive amounts of foreign investment flowing into the energy projects. Meanwhile Vladivostok continues to rot.