Vladivostok, July 5 (RFE/RL) -- Judging by the ballot box, Yevgeny Ivanovich Nazdratenko is a popular man. Appointed governor of the Primorsky Krai region in Russia's Far East in 1993, he won a landslide victory when the people were asked to decide his fate in an election last December. The five other candidates who ran failed to garner any significant support and Nazdratenko walked away with 70% of the vote.
His critics see this as part of the problem with politics in the region, which is the most densely populated part of the Russian Far East. Nazdratenko, a former mine company boss, is unrivaled, they say, because he has managed to eliminate most of his opponents, appointing only friends and allies to position of power and influence.
A Godfather-like figure by some accounts, Nazdratenko also keeps a tight reign on what is said or written about him. Newspapers that have incurred his wrath with unflattering stories suddenly find themselves facing costly libel suits leaving them on the verge of bankruptcy. The local television looks like little more than a tool in his hands.
In a recent interview with RFE/RL in his plush office, overlooking the port in Vladivostok, Nazdratenko, in his late forties, is not without charm or humour. Far from the mobster some make him out to be, Nazdratenko likes to cast himself as an ordinary, family man. Plucking a picture of his two sons from his desk he says how it hurts them to see bad things written about their father. Things which, he says, are naturally untrue.
It is a similar paternalistic approach that Nazdratenko has towards his job. Relaxed in a silk shirt and wearing a gold Rolex watch - a present from friends - he is more like a typical Soviet-style factory boss. He speaks proudly of how he has nurtured the region's capital Vladivostok back to health.
Once a closed military base, he says, the city is now an important hub and a thriving commercial centre in the Pacific Rim. He is quick to point out his efforts to attract foreign businesses and boasts of the number of consulates that have opened in the city.
But apart from a caseful of Japanese gifts and a picture of himself with U.S. President Bill Clinton the evidence of thriving business or cooperative foreign relations is hard to find.
There are only a handful of consulates operating in the city. The few foreign businesses that have set up here say they have done so with little help or encouragement from the local administration.
But if the minuscule foreign community has little good to say about the governor, local people feel differently. Nazdratenko's popularity derives from an understanding - some say a cynical understanding -- of their needs and fears. Whether he is rewarding pensioners for their courage during the war or giving youngsters the chance to learn business skills, Nazdratenko is seen as a man of the people.
He has also boosted his standing by taking a tough line on Chinese workers. With unemployment running high many locals are afraid that the "guest workers" from across the border will take badly-needed jobs away. Nazdratenko's decision to launch a crackdown called Operation Foreigner two years ago was widely supported.
Defending the operation, which involved the deportation of hundreds of Chinese traders, Nazdratenko said that "every state has the right to protect its own interests."
The governor's relations with Moscow are not always smooth. He has clashed with the Kremlin over the demarcation of Russia's border with China and on the issue of greater autonomy for his region.
Local observers say this is little more than political posturing. Although he likes to play the role of local tough-guy pitted against the Kremlin machinery, when it comes down to allegiances Nazdratenko
says clearly that he is "Yeltsin's man."
Among the other trophies in his private office is a signed photograph from President Boris Yeltsin thanking Nazdratenko for his support during the 1991 failed putsch. Although confident that Yeltsin will be re-elected, Nazdratenko says he believes Russia was not yet ready for the democratic experiment which, he says, the West forced his country into.
Some commentators say that, without doubt, Nazdratenko's sights are firmly set on a job in Moscow's corridors of power. At 47, he still has time on his side.