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Russia: Admiral Elected To Clean Up Corrupt Kaliningrad Exclave

Russia's Baltic Fleet commander Vladimir Yegorov won yesterday's gubernatorial election in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Because of the region's far-western location, the vote has implications for neighboring Poland and the Baltic states. Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 20 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Until this autumn, Admiral Vladimir Yegorov commanded Russia's imposing Baltic Fleet -- its western-most military unit and the cradle of Russia's navy under Peter the Great.

The Baltic Fleet's home port is Baltiisk, near the city of Kaliningrad. But soon the 62-year-old admiral will be in charge of the entire Kaliningrad enclave, an economically underdeveloped piece of land wedged between Poland and Lithuania that is widely regarded as a black hole of contraband and corruption.

Russian analysts have expressed concern over the recent surge of uniformed men running for political office in several Russian regional elections. Yet most of them see Yegorov's election as offering an opportunity to improve conditions in Kaliningrad.

Yegorov, who won almost 60 percent of the vote, ran a campaign based largely on his image as a military leader with clean hands and capable of ridding the region of economic crime. The campaign contrasted with the image of Governor Leonid Gorbenko, who many see as a corrupt autocrat.

Boris Kuznetsov is an analyst at the Saint Petersburg-based Center for Integration, Research and Programs, which focuses on Russia-Europe integration issues. He told our correspondent that Yegorov's past will lead him naturally to favor law-enforcement issues.

"He's a military man who has came to [political] power. With his past in the armed forces, he will naturally strengthen authorities through a reinforcement of law-enforcement organs. Kaliningrad has transparent borders for smuggling. I think that Yegorov will do more to clean up there."

Incumbent Gorbenko, who received one third of the votes, managed in his four years in office to become the archetype of Russia's autocratic governors. During his tenure, opposition journalists were beaten up and official documents read like odes to Gorbenko.

Gorbenko is now implicated in at least two criminal proceedings investigating regional mismanagement of public funds. In one instance, Gorbenko's administration is suspected of having misused at least $3 million of a $13-million loan from Germany's Dresdner Bank.

Yegorov's promised voters to reinstate legality and order. His pledges differed little from those made last year by Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose support Yegorov vaunted throughout his campaign. In fact, the Kremlin's backing of Yegorov -- although discreet -- seemed to be real. During Putin's visit to Kaliningrad three months ago, the admiral was constantly at his side and Yegorov was recently praised by influential Security Council head Sergei Ivanov.

Kuznetsov believes that Putin's support is a major reason why Yegorov's election should be well received by the enclave's immediate neighbors, Poland and Lithuania, as well as with foreign investors. He explains that, in the context of Putin's centralization plans, good relations between the Kremlin and a regional head is attracting foreign investment.

"What is good is that now they clearly know with whom they are dealing. Under Gorbenko, the team in power was known to be corrupt. Now, new people are coming to power, people who have Moscow's support. That is of no small importance to the region's neighbors, which need to work out relations with Kaliningrad. It is important for Poland and Lithuania to know that there shouldn't be any problems between Kaliningrad and Moscow."

Yegorov has said Kaliningrad must take its development into its own hands or risk being permanently left behind Poland and Lithuania. But it is unclear how he plans to get the regional economy going.

To take one major example, the future of the Kaliningrad Free Economic Zone is still in question. The free zone was set up four years ago to boost the enclave's economy by making it an investment and trade magnet for foreigners through tax breaks. But the zone was virtually stillborn because of the region's lawlessness and its economic and political instability.

In addition, Gorbenko partially annulled the zone by imposing import quotas on a long list of goods, including parsley. Critics charge that the quotas were then distributed arbitrarily by the governor's office in exchange for financial or political support.

The economist who originally thought up the Kaliningrad free zone is now on Yegorov's team. Still, the admiral's plans for the zone remain unclear. "A free economic zone may be potentially profitable for the region," Kuznetsov says, "but it clashes ideologically with the Kremlin's centralization plans."