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Russia: Vladivostok Politicians Fight Amidst Economic Crisis

Vladivostok/Moscow, 5 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The political battle is fiercer than ever in the Russian Far East port city of Vladivostok, at a very wrong moment.

The election of the mayor of Vladivostok degenerated into confusion on Sunday (Sept. 27) after the local electoral commission, in a last-minute decision, said the name of controversial Mayor Viktor Cherepkov should be deleted from the ballot. The decision followed a rule that last week disqualified Cherepkov for allegedly using city money to support his campaign.

The debate around the mayor is an important one in Vladivostok, a city port of 800,000, eight time zones east of Moscow. He is both loved and hated by the majority of the citizens, for his eccentric style and his feud with regional governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko. That feud has caused much hardship for citizens.

For example, in a city where since this summer ambulances have been on strike to protest 19 months of unpaid wages, the regional and municipal administration have been unable to decide who should support the service financially. Cherepkov told RFE/RL correspondent in a recent interview that "ambulance-service employees are not the city's responsibility." He added that he "could create an alternative ambulance service in five minutes" but "would not do so, because the governor would immediately come up with another source of conflict."

Frustrated locals say that over the last few years it has become increasingly "difficult even to survive" in Vladivostok, despite the possibilities that the proximity to Asian markets could have provided.

The city suffered for years of severe shortages in energy and water supplies. Many neighborhoods in the hilly city experience protracted water and energy cuts and even in the city's main hotels hot water is available for just a couple of hours a day.

Aleksandr Ghelbakh, press secretary of the local energy company "Dalenergo," that is at the heart of the energy crisis, told RFE/RL that "this is a non-payment crisis, not an energy crisis."

Cherepkov and Nazdratenko have often traded accusations of corruption and mismanagement. Despite recognizing the drawbacks of the situation, many citizens told our correspondent prior to the vote that they would likely support Cherepkov, because, according to general wisdom, "despite his devotion to astrology and eccentric practices, if he wants, he can get things done. For instance, he built very quickly much needed new roads."

Cherepkov and his aides have denied critics' claims that the roads, as other projects were part of a plan to attract citizens' support. The English-language newspaper "Vladivostok News," has reported that city hall had paid for a discotheque four days a week for much of the summer, at a cost of more than $900 per night. DJs reportedly frequently reminded the crowds that the mayor was sponsoring the event, but the mayor's office has said the main goal of the organizers was to "give young people something to do."

In the mayoral election, some 40 percent of the voters showed up at polling stations, validating the vote, said Ilya Grichenko, the chairman of the local electoral commission. However, preliminary results issued by the commission indicated that more then half of the voters who cast ballots voted against all candidates. Russian media said officials at some polling stations had complied with the order to cross out Cherepkov's name, while others simply refused to do so.

The chairman of the regional Duma, Sergei Dudnik, called the commission's decision a mistake, because, according to Russian law, a legal decision on Cherepkov's alleged irregularities had yet to be made. He said the electoral commission could be replaced and new elections could be called in the next months.

Dudnik and President Boris Yeltsin's representative in the region, Viktor Kondratov, had appealed to Yeltsin to leave Cherepkov on the ballot, warning of possible unrest. Kondratov has said tensions were building in the region "because of unlawful acts... against the background of deteriorating economic problems." According to Kondratov, who is not seen as harboring sympathy for Nazdratenko, the situation is being deliberately exacerbated so that "the whole indignant population of Primorje region will take to the streets on the day of the All-Russian protest action, scheduled for October 7.

Vitaly Kirsanov, head of the Far Eastern Branch of the State Customs Committee, says the import of goods to the Primorje region has declined by half since the ruble crisis started hitting Russia. In comments reported in the "Vladivostok news," he said importers prefer to re-export their goods, rather then unload their ships. Kirsanov added that traders are reluctant to ship and deliver goods, preferring to wait for ruble stabilization.

Vladimir Stegni, head of the regional department of International Economic Relations and Tourism, in an interview with RFE/RL, predicted that the devaluation of the ruble would heavily hit Primorje, as the region imports 80 percent of its goods, including foodstuffs, from China, South Korea, and Japan.

The business of shuttle traders, among the most active travelers particularly toward China's cheap markets, is rapidly decreasing. Many traders, who were previously providing markets across the region with affordable goods, have been working at a loss since the crisis and many, particularly Chinese, are interrupting activities.

(This is the second of three stories).