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Russia's Far East; Too Far From Moscow For Comfort

Vladivostok, Russia; June 13 (RFE/RL) -- The people of the Russian Far East feel forgotten. On the edge of Russia, they also feel left off the Kremlin's agenda.

The territory, almost two thirds the size of the United States, with a population of only 8 million people, will not play a decisive role in Sunday's presidential election. It is a widely, but bitterly accepted fact.

None of the presidential candidates have come here to campaign. Apart from a rock concert last weekend in support of President Boris Yeltsin, there have been no major pre-election events.

Media coverage, like elsewhere in Russia, is unashamedly pro-Yeltsin. But all this is unlikely to swing an electorate, who in December's State Duma elections backed the communists or the right-wing nationalist party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

"It's not that people here are really pro-communist or want Zhirinovsky. They just want to show that they disagree with the government and the policies of President Yeltsin." said Inna Nazarova, a college graduate, who helps run the American Business Center in Vladivostok. "This is their only way to show their disapproval," she said.

The reasons for such strong anti-government feeling are not hard to understand. Many places remain without running water, electricity and even food supplies for much of the Winter. Prices for goods and services are among the highest in Russia. Then there are the problems that came with the collapse of the military industrial complex such as wage arrears, forced holidays or straight layoffs and the loss of social benefits.

Vladivostok, the administrative capital of the Primorsky Krai region which has the largest population density in the Far East, is far from being the boomtown it was predicted to become when it returned to the outside world in 1992. Despite its excellent location for trading with its prosperous Pacific Rim neighbors, many opportunities have been squandered.

Foreign businessmen tell a tale that can be heard all over Russia; of plans wrecked by conflicting and unclear legislation, punitive tax rates and organized crime. Russian entrepreneurs are often even harder hit.

Physically the city is in an advanced state of decay. Soviet symbols - the red star, the hammer and sickle - abound. Apart from the dominance of Japanese cars and Korean goods, there is little sign that the city lies on the crossroads with China, Korea and Japan. The atmosphere is that of the early days of perestroika in a provincial Russian city.

The local communist party headquarters are also a step back in time. In a small lecture hall, decorated with pictures of Lenin, a handful of elderly men in shabby suits are organizing piles of not-so-glossy election leaflets.

A bland looking Gennady Zyuganov, the party's leader and presidential candidate, stares down from a poster on the wall. It reads uninspiringly: Russia, Motherland, People. The only connection to more recent times is a table laden with socialist propaganda leaflets from North Korea, published this year.

Around the city the most prominent face on the billboards besides Yeltsin is that of retired army general Alexander Lebed. His message, which appeals to many, even the younger generation here, is "Truth and Order."

Local TV bulletins are clearly biased towards maintaining the status quo. Yeltsin's campaign has also benefited, some would say unfairly so, from the backing of the regional governor, Yevgeny Nazdratenko. A contradictory figure, tainted by reports of corruption, Nazdratenko is seen to play whichever part is required; Kremlin-fighting defender of the Far East or staunch Yeltsin ally.

Elected by a landslide vote in December with populist slogans denouncing the Chinese and pledges of greater autonomy for his region, Nazdratenko later backed down to play by the Kremlin's rules. Like Yeltsin, he too, is feeling the anger of a people, tired of empty promises.

"Moscow has become the scapegoat for everything that is wrong here," says Dmitri Motovilov, a professor of journalism in Vladivostok. People increasingly support decentralization along the lines of agreements already signed between Moscow and other parts of the federation.

Sunday's election can be seen as a struggle between the past and the future; voters here know which looks brighter. Whether as an independent Far Eastern Republic as briefly experienced in the 1920's or a privileged part of the USSR - for many people then looks better than now.