Moscow, 14 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - A Kremlin-backed candidate has won a gubernatorial election in Nizhny Novgorod, defeating a Communist rival in a runoff vote widely portrayed as a referendum on reform. But President Boris Yeltsin's administration received a setback in a mayoral vote in the city of Samara.
Nizhny Novgorod Mayor Ivan Sklyarov won yesterday's gubernatorial election. The local central electoral commission said returns of the vote showed that Sklyarov won 52 percent of the vote, and communist State Duma Deputy Gennady Khodyrev received about 42 percent.
Observers in Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow said, before the vote, that the race to fill the seat vacated when Yeltsin appointed then-governor Boris Nemtsov to the post of Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister in March held symbolic importance, stretching far beyond the region. Commentators said that a victory by Sklyarov, seen as a pro-reform candidate, would show that the population in the region 400 kilometers east of Moscow backed reforms carried out previously by Nemtsov, and would demonstrate support for the government, where Nemtsov is now spearheading nationwide reforms.
In the first-round vote last month, Skyarov received 41 percent of the vote and Khodyrev 38 percent, fueling concern among Kremlin and government officials that a possible communist victory in Nemtsov's former domain could provide powerful arguments for Yeltsin's foes.
As Nizhny Novgorod governor, Nemtsov had tried to turn the region, a former bulwark of the Soviet military-industrial complex, into a showcase of economic reform. Nemtsov strongly supported privatization, and also social reforms. The communists blame Nemtsov and Sklyarov, until now Mayor of the regional capital, a city of 1.5-million people on the Volga river, for unemployment and the decline of social care and education. Other critics have said Nemtsov's success was mainly in capitalizing on reform slogans, but that the regional population had not gained much from his economic programs.
Sklyarov's election comes as a relief for the Kremlin and follows a tough campaign battle since last month's first-round election, in which Sklyarov and Khodyrev beat three other candidates, but neither of the two won enough votes for outright victory. After the first round, Nemtsov and other top officials, including Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, threw their weight behind Sklyarov, as about 60 State Duma members, including communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and ultra-nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, came to Nizhny Novgorod to campaign for Khodyrev.
Turnout yesterday was about 49 percent, higher than in the first round, when more than 60 percent of voters ignored the poll.
Nemtsov recently spent three days in the region campaigning for Sklyarov. During a rally, he called his supporters to "go and inspire people to come and vote." He gave an account of what he called "the awful state of the region" in Soviet times, when Khodyrev was ruling Nizhny Novgorod as local communist party chief. He also told citizens that if they "wanted empty shops back, transport and energy problems" they should just "go ahead and pick the communist candidate again"
Nemtsov recognized Slyarov did not enjoy strong popular following, but said that by voting for him people were not committing themselves 'to love him." According to observers, Sklyarov's program and campaign rhetoric differed little from Khodyrev's.
Chernomyrdin visited the nuclear research center in Sarov Friday and promised federal support for the center. Although spokesmen said Chernomyrdin's visit was "not connected to the election," a RFE/RL correspondent in Nizhny Novgorod noted that Khodyrev outpolled Sklyarov in the district containing Sarov in the first round.
Communist leaders, commenting on the outcome of the election today, said the vote had been close, showing that society is divided over the government's planned reform program, and that nearly half of the population is not happy with their course.
Interfax news agency quoted officials in Moscow as saying the positive result in Nizhny Novgorod overshadowed a partial disappointment in the central Russian city of Samara, where a supporter of Yeltsin's outspoken critic and former Security Council secretary Aleksandr Lebed was elected mayor to replace Oleg Sysuev, who was appointed Deputy Prime Minister in March. Sysuev is working closely with Nemtsov in the government team perceived as pro-reform.
Georgy Limansky, deputy chairman of the Samara region's legislature, gained more than 54 percent of the vote to win yesterday's runoff mayoral election in the city.
Sysuev, who was appointed Deputy Prime Minister in March, had supported Deputy Mayor Anatoly Afanasev, who polled some 38 percent. Limansky heads the Samara region branch of Lebed's Russian People's Republican Party. Lebed campaigned for Limansky in Samara last month, and Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky and Forward, Russia! leader Boris Fedorov also backed Limansky. Sysuev campaigned for Afanasev, but showed up in Samara only briefly.
Some observers noted that Limansky, who is also an influential businessman, enjoyed stronger popular support in Samara than his rival. Turnout in Samara was just over 40 percent, despite the fact that city officials authorized unlicensed trade on the day of the vote.