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Russia: Election In Far East Highlights Weaknesses In Democracy

Entrepreneur and political newcomer Sergei Darkin has won the election for governor of Russia's Far Eastern Maritime region (Primorskii Krai). According to the latest results, Darkin won just over 40 percent of the vote in yesterday's run-off. But turnout was extremely low, and a third of voters chose "none of the above" -- indications of deep dissatisfaction with government in the region. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten speaks with a Russia analyst who says the result illustrates the confused and ailing state of Russian democracy.

Prague, 18 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Although Sergei Darkin, the future governor of Russia's Maritime region (Primorskii Krai), is a political newcomer, he carries a lot of baggage.

As a businessman, the 37-year-old Darkin is involved in commercial fishing -- one of the region's major industries -- as well as other prominent ventures. And politically, he is seen as a protege of former Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko, who was forced to resign at the start of the year by Russian President Vladimir Putin over the region's energy crisis.

Darkin and his campaign staff skillfully exploited this fact during the campaign, portraying his run as a fight against the arrogant federal authorities in Moscow. Stephan De Spiegeleire, a Russia analyst at the RAND Europe think tank, explains:

"They portrayed it as: 'The center is interfering with us and that's why everything is going wrong. What we need is our own guys, and Nazdratenko was a good guy because he stood up against the center, so he deserves our support.' And interestingly enough, that seems to work. It was when Nazdratenko came out, a little before the first round of these elections, that Darkin's popularity certainly went up."

The fact that Darkin won, De Spiegeleire says, indicates that despite his rhetoric and much-touted administrative reforms, Putin has been unable to significantly weaken the power of regional governors:

"These governors have usurped an enormous amount of power. Most importantly, also, they have incredible networks with local business interests, and it's very hard for the center to go against the tide here. Now, of course, a lot of these governors have seen the changing of the guard in Moscow and they've laid low for a while. But I think the fundamentals of their power bases are still very much there."

Observers say they expect that Darkin, far from being an innovator, will continue the policies of his mentor.

De Spiegeleire says many people in the region -- which is plagued by energy shortages, unemployment, and crime -- are disgusted with the political system but are helpless to change it. The campaign was rife with rumors of dirty tricks and blatant interference from both the Moscow authorities and local business interests, backed by local judges, who disqualified one candidate just three days before the vote.

In the end, neither the candidate nor the system came out looking good. For most people, the only options presenting themselves were either not to vote or to vote and select no one. A minority chose to express their anger at the current situation by voting for the anti-Kremlin candidate -- and that, De Spiegeleire says, is how Darkin won:

"The voters gave a very clear message here: they hate this whole system. And I think what you see here is that the voters of this region really show a very clear sign of independence -- independence both from the federal center, because they voted for the candidate who represents the interests of the guy who had been thrown out by Putin, but they also show independence from the regional center because of the incredibly low turnout. Less than a third of the voters showed up."

De Spiegeleire says this is indicative of the problems facing Russian democracy. He says the fact that voters in the Maritime region (Primorskii Krai) are losing their belief in the ability of elections to provide solutions to their problems is an alarming sign for the rest of the country:

"It's really a pretty serious blow to the credibility of democracy and elections as a way to deal with these various issues, and I think in that sense these elections in Vladivostok are really quite revealing for what's going wrong in Russian democracy right now."

In the meantime, the serious problems plaguing Russia's Primorskii Krai look set to continue, with real reform staying off the agenda for the foreseeable future.