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Russia: Life In Vladivostok Is Improving

It's hard to explain why, but living conditions for many in the Russian Far Eastern city of Vladivostok are improving. RFE/RL correspondent Russell Working reports that the improvements started about the time the controversial mayor was dismissed from office.

Vladivostok, 23 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- After years of hardship, life for ordinary people in Vladivostok seems to be getting better.

Residents of this city in the Russian Far East cite many reasons for their optimism. They say that orphanages are no longer begging for food, ambulance workers aren't striking for back wages, and police are no longer stopping passing bread trucks and ordering them to haul away dead bodies.

Although supporters of the populist former Mayor Viktor Cherepkov hate to admit it, the improvements seem to coincide with Cherepkov's eviction from office. He was removed in December by President Boris Yeltsin.

Aleksandr Dashkovsky, the head physician at the Psychiatric Hospital, gives a typical upbeat assessment that echos the improving mood of many who work in social services. Dashkovsky says the city has finally caught up on back wages and payments for food and medicine. Shortages had sparked weeks of protests by doctors and patients in 1998.

Under Cherepkov, Vladivostok became notorious as a city where rat abatement was canceled in the middle of a garbage strike and where maternity homes couldn't pay their staff. A city of 700,000 on the Sea of Japan, Vladivostok symbolized the worst of provincial Russia's poverty and isolation -- a place where democracy often took a back seat to political feuds.

Cherepkov lost his job after thousands of supporters boycotted a mayoral election when a local court struck his name from the ballot. Yeltsin then dismissed Cherepkov, saying the mayor had no right to remain in place until new elections could be held. Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko, a bitter foe of Cherepkov, appointed Yury Kopylov to take Cherepkov's place.

A pro-Cherepkov slate, including the former mayor himself, swept the City Duma elections in January, and the deputies promptly reappointed Cherepkov mayor. But local courts disqualified the entire slate on technicalities. Voters widely interpreted the courts' decision as the result of pressure from the governor.

Cherepkov unsuccessfully pressed his case in higher Russian courts and then the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. When Russia was admitted to the Council of Europe in 1996, it was with the agreement that it would adhere to the decisions of the court in Strasbourg. A three-person delegation from the council arrived in Vladivostok yesterday at the invitation of Cherepkov.

The immediate reason for the city's improving fortunes isn't clear. Cherepkov's critics cautiously praise acting Mayor Kopylov. They say he has acted quickly to divert funding to sectors that had long been neglected, such as health care and social services.

But Cherepkov's supporters say the problem lay with the regional administration. They say the administration withheld funding intended for the city in order to discredit the mayor.

Cherepkov himself has gone into hiding, and could not be reached for comment. But a close ally, regional Duma Deputy Vladimir Ksenzuk, says acting mayor Kopylov deserves no credit for improved city services. Ksenzuk says the improvement stems simply from better tax collection. He says the rate of tax collection is twice what it was last year.

(Russell Working is editor of the Vladivostok News, an English-language newspaper published in the Russian Far East.)