Putin purportedly eroded the governors' ability to treat their regions like personal fiefdoms by stripping them of their forum in the Federation Council, by establishing the system of presidential envoys to the seven federal districts, and by crafting legislation making it possible to dismiss governors who disregard federal laws. However, the recent mayoral election in Vladivostok raises questions about how much control over the regions the federal authorities really have -- at least in this important port city on the country's Pacific coast.
The winner of the 18 July second round, Vladimir Nikolaev, is a convicted felon who served 3 1/2 years in prison for beating up one Primorskii Krai legislator and threatening to murder another. Numerous local and national media reports have described Nikolaev as a mid-level gangster, known in the criminal world as "Winnie the Pooh." During the campaign Nikolaev had the backing of Primorskii Krai Governor Sergei Darkin, who himself was accused of ties to organized crime during his successful gubernatorial campaign in 2001. Dmitrii Glotov, a close associate of Nikolaev, is reportedly going to run for mayor of Nakhodka -- another port city and the likely destination for an important oil pipeline -- in December, according to "Transitions Online" on 19 July. Glotov, chairman of the Association of Fishing Enterprises of Primorskii Krai, has also been accused of ties to a crime family headed by the late Sergei Baulo. "Izvestiya" alleged on 12 July that Glotov and Nikolaev started a new underworld group after Baulo was killed in 1995.
Russia is, of course, an extremely large country, and the Kremlin is therefore forced to adopt positions of benign neglect or neutrality regarding the goings-on in many areas at various times, although presumably the presidential envoys are keeping tabs. Primorskii Krai, however, is rarely one of these regions. Just one year after he was first elected, Putin personally intervened in the krai, which had been the subject of countless news stories of frozen, disgusted citizens who, after months of electricity shut-offs, had begun taking to the streets in protest. In February 2001, Putin telephoned then-Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko, who the next day announced that he was stepping down to accept an offer to head the State Fisheries Committee in Moscow. Some three years later, Nazdratenko still has a high-level -- if largely symbolic -- position in Moscow, now as a deputy secretary in the Security Council, even though the citizens of Vladivostok continue to suffer. Now local media are focusing on the city's inability to maintain regular water supplies to local residents.
A group of about 16 people virtually took over a local restaurant, drinking toasts and singing songs to Nikolaev, terrorizing restaurant staff.
Soon they may have to start wearing bulletproof vests while dining out in the city. On the night after Nikolaev's 18 July second-round victory, his supporters shot off guns in Vladivostok's outskirts, according to gazeta.ru on 20 July. Restaurants in the city experienced a night of wild revelry and fracases by Nikolaev's supporters.
In one of the most publicized incidents, a group of about 16 people virtually took over a local restaurant, drinking toasts and singing songs to Nikolaev, terrorizing restaurant staff, dragging a number of young women in the restaurant around by their hair and exposing their breasts, "Komsomolskaya pravda -- Dalnii vostok" reported on 21 July. They wound up breaking all the dishes in the restaurant and threatened restaurant manager Lilya Barkova when they suspected she was going to call the police. Barkova told "Komsomolskaya pravda" that she never seriously considered calling the police. "Everyone, not only me, thinks that in such a situation the police would not get involved and would not help us," she said. "I think if we had called the police, we would have had an even bigger problem." According to Barkova, when the group left the restaurant at 3:00 a.m., they said "Get ready, this is only the beginning."
Election day itself was also marked by impropriety. RFE/RL's Vladivostok correspondent reported on 19 July that observers witnessed carousel voting and attempts to buy votes with offers of 50 to 300 rubles ($1.70-$10.30). Voters from outside of city were also reportedly bused in and allowed to vote despite not being registered in the city. Nikolai Markovtsev, who ran against Nikolaev in the second round, charged that Nikolaev's team of T-shirt clad youth were handing out blank ballots together with flyers supporting Nikolaev at polling sites, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 19 July.
Markovtsev made it to the second round despite finishing in fifth place in the first round because the third- and fourth-place finishers refused to participate in the election after a krai court disqualified State Duma Deputy and second-place finisher Viktor Cherepkov days before the ballot. The night before the court decision, Cherepkov was seriously injured when he triggered a trip wire connected to a grenade planted outside his campaign headquarters.
Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov condemned the court decision to disqualify Cherepkov, but said the ballot itself had proceeded according to the law. In an interview with Ekho Moskvy on 19 July, however, he allowed for the possibility that if a appeals court overturns the krai court's decision, then new elections might have to be held. Nikolaev, meanwhile, shows little concern that this will happen. On 23 May, he appointed his first deputy mayor, a former director of finance from his shipping company.
So far, Nikolaev is the first mayor of major Russian city to have a criminal record. Another convicted felon, Andrei Klimentev, was elected to the mayor's office in Nizhnii Novgorod in 1998, but the election results were annulled. Therefore, it could be argued that drawing conclusions based on Vladivostok's experience would be a mistake. However, in an interview with RFE/RL's Moscow bureau on 20 July, Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center suggested that elections take place in Vladivostok "perhaps even more freely than in a number of other regions." "Violations of election law take place in many other regions and are also reported in practically all regional and federal elections," he said. "The problem is that the violations in Vladivostok are very scandalous, and [because of this] a lot of attention is paid to them."
In short, the Vladivostok scenario might just be a more dramatic rendition of scenes being played out across the Russian stage. The question is: Why is the situation in Vladivostok still so clearly out of control despite the attention the city has received from the federal authorities -- including Putin himself? Could it be that the federal center's ability to project its power and influence is more limited than most observers imagine?