Over the weekend, Kursk Governor Aleksandr Rutskoi was barred from standing for re-election about 15 hours before the actual voting began. The action by a local court for Rutskoi's alleged campaign violations and abuses of his office is seen by some as political move by the authorities. Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.
Moscow, 23 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Critics of both the governor and the court's action say Aleksandr Rutskoi was punished for the right crimes, but for the wrong reasons. They say that the decision seems to play into the hands of the Kremlin at a time when it is trying to gain greater control of the regions.
The court found Rutskoi guilty of cheating on his property declaration by failing to mention a car worth more than $14,000 and underestimating by several hundred square meters the size of various personal apartments. He was also accused of using public finds to set up a pro-Rutskoi newspaper and to pay for organizing a free public concert in which one of Russia's biggest pop stars participated.
With the exception of Rutskoi himself, few deny these violations. They are hardly surprising, given the man's track-record. Boris Yeltsin's former vice president until he led a parliamentary revolt against his boss in October 1993, Rutskoi has long been accused of nepotism in the region he governs.
One of Rutskoi's sons is said to control all of the region's pharmaceutical business, another in total control of its gas. Rutskoi's father-in-law is head of a regional advisory body.
Even so, critics say the court's decision was biased in favor of the Kremlin. They point to its timing as their main argument. The court announced Rutskoi's disqualification late Saturday afternoon, with balloting due to begin at eight o'clock the next morning. The court decision came so late that, under a new law, Rutskoi was unable to appeal before the election actually took place.
In the event, none of the seven candidates deemed qualified won more than 50 percent of the vote, and there will be a run-off between the two top vote-getters on Sunday. But even if Rutskoi wins his appeal, he is not likely to qualify as a candidate in time for the second round.
One of the two men participating in the run-off is Viktor Surzhikov, a KGB general who -- together with another candidate -- filed the complaint against Rutskoi on Friday. Surzhikov had previously been named inspector general for the region by President Vladimir Putin's special area representative, and is widely considered the Kremlin's favorite for the gubernatorial post.
Certainly, Rutskoi thinks so. After first blaming the court's decision on local plotters, Rutskoi late told national NTV television that the Kremlin was behind the action. He said that his opponents were too cowardly to pressure the court themselves and had acted with the support of the Kremlin.
Some newspapers today came to similar conclusions. The daily "Vedomosti" quoted a local official who said that police had encircled the local television building even before the court made its decision, implying that the result "was known beforehand." The daily Segodnya directly accused the Kremlin of "intervention" and of using "force" to solve its political problems.
The U.S. Heritage Foundation's Moscow-based analyst, Yevgeny Volk, also sees evidence of Kremlin backing in the last-minute timing of the court decision. He told RFE/RL that as far back as the 1996 gubernatorial elections the Kremlin had been suspected of being behind an attempt to bar Rutskoi, but that then the governor successfully appealed the decision:
"These violations have been known for a very long time. So it's the timing that -- by not leaving Rutskoi enough time to appeal -- clearly shows it's an attempt to bring him down at the last moment."
Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov told journalists today that there had indeed been earlier complaints about Rutskoi examined by both his and a regional election commission. Explaining why the regional court's decision came so late, Veshnyakov said the accusations were still being "verified" when Surzhikov was directly addressing the court.
Veshnyakov rejected all accusations of political interference in the electoral process. There were, he emphasized, concrete and specific violations:
"Respect the law, respect the law without fault, and then there won't be any reason for a registration to cancelled by a regional court, by the electoral commission or by the supreme court. And if somebody still thinks these are empty words, this example should make him shudder."
Veshnyakov did admit, however, that new legal provisions that disallow a quick appeal of a court ruling on a candidacy -- in effect, depriving the accused of a right to appeal before an election -- were not acceptable. He said that Putin himself had also objected to these provisions -- although he did sign the law.
Volk says that reactions to the decision barring Rutskoi are symptomatic of Russian political practice, where political influence over other areas of government -- in this case, the judiciary -- is taken for granted. Volk points out that the Kursk court decision will send a strong signal to other regions when, beginning 1 January, a new law allowing the federal authorities to suspend regional heads for suspected violations goes into effect.
According to Volk, the ultimate lesson of the Rutskoi incident may be how much power the authorities can wield over those who commit crimes or misdemeanors while in office. "You can find some naughtiness in any governor's and any president's rule," he says. "It's just that compromising information makes them little short of helpless when a perfectly legal procedure is applied."