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Russia: Communist Candidate Wins Governor's Chair In Leningrad Oblast

St. Petersburg, 1 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Vadim Gustov, a Communist-backed, independent candidate and the former speaker of the Leningrad Oblast Soviet, has won the Leningrad Oblast's first gubernatorial election.

His landslide victory over Governor Alexander Belyakov, an apparent political setback for the Kremlin, was not widely predicted. Gustov achieved a crushing majority, more than 53 percent of the vote. The Kremlin had supported Belyakov, who took only 32 percent.

Gustov is to be sworn in as governor on Thursday.

Even before the numbers began to trickle in Sunday night and yesterday morning, Gustov evidently smelled victory. Gustov sported a wide smile as he confidently strolled the halls of the Leningrad Oblast Government Building where the electoral commission is located.

Conspicuously absent was the incumbent Belyakov, reported to be behind closed doors in his third floor office. When Belyakov emerged to concede defeat, he did his best to put on a brave face.

"My defeat should not be treated as a tragedy," he said. He added that the victory of communist-supported candidates in Leningrad Oblast and in other regions shows that the Russian government needs to make "corrections" in its policies.

Gustov's victory capped an energetic grass roots campaign across the mostly rural oblast through factories, collective farms and military installations where he often visited three sites a day. Nevertheless, Belyakov, with his Kremlin endorsement and a big lead in the public opinion polls had been expected to win a second term. In the run-up to the election, telephone polls showed Belyakov with a 38 point lead.

Interfax news agency yesterday quoted Russian Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov as saying: "The left opposition is completely satisfied with the results of the Leningrad Oblast election." Zyuganov added that Gustov used legitimate tactics that "did not divide the region into reds and whites."

Not everyone interprets the results as a communist victory and a Kremlin humiliation. Interfax yesterday quoted former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak.

"Gustov is not a communist," he said. "I have known him for a long time and consider him to be a good manager."

The former St. Petersburg mayor, a political opponent of Belyakov, charged that Belyakov's administration had made the Leningrad Oblast "the worst in Russia."

Gustov also minimized any ideological conclusion. He said the role of the governor is to be a manager who solves concrete problems.

"I was certain of victory from the start because I have the only program to bring the oblast out of economic crisis," he said.

He said his program is based not on political divisions but on economics. He the test is not whether democrats or the communists hold power, but whether the administration works. Gustov said his priorities are to draft the 1997 budget, prepare the oblast for winter and to form his government.