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Russia: Krasnoyarsk Upholds Reputation With Colorful Election After Lebed's Death

Gubernatorial elections are set for 8 September in Russia's vast Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk to replace Aleksandr Lebed, the former general who died in a helicopter crash in April. Never alien to controversy, the region's enterprising -- and often notorious -- politicians and businessmen are all scrambling to fill the political vacuum left by the one-time Russian presidential hopeful.

Moscow, 6 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The first round of elections are due to take place 8 September in the Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk, following a number of 11th-hour attempts to bar the leading candidates from running. The race is a close one and widely expected to be decided in a runoff to be held later.

Aleksandr Lebed governed the region until his death in a helicopter crash in April. Lebed was a gruff, ruddy-faced former paratroop general whose larger-than-life personality captured the country's attention when he ran for president in 1996.

Lebed spent much of his time as Krasnoyarsk governor locked in struggles with local businessmen and politicians.

The outcome of the gubernatorial election may determine future development in the sprawling region, which is rich in natural resources, especially forests and metals deposits.

Three candidates lead a pack of 14. According to recent public opinion polls, local parliamentary speaker Aleksandr Uss is ahead of the pack. Uss is backed by the region's most profitable concern, the massive Russian aluminum conglomerate.

Uss is followed by Aleksandr Khloponin, governor of the semi-autonomous Arctic region of Taimyr and former head of the Norilsk Nickel metals giant. The world's top palladium exporter and number-two nickel producer, Norilsk is an economic powerhouse that has recently been expanding its political influence in Krasnoyarsk.

Pyotr Pimashkov, mayor of the region's eponymous capital, is running third in the polls.

Aleksei Titkov, a regional affairs expert at the Moscow office of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agrees with other analysts that Uss has the upper hand, but tells RFE/RL that the legislator's victory is far from certain.

"There's a significantly unpleasant possibility [for Uss] if Pimashkov makes it into the second round. In the opinion of political scientists and sociologists, there's a possibility Uss would lose in that situation."

Titkov says the anti-Moscow overtones of Uss's campaign might backfire when compared with the more accommodating Pimashkov.

However, Yuri Korgunyuk, of Moscow's INDEM think tank, says the election will most likely come down to a battle between Uss and Khloponin, who represent the southern and northern parts of the region, respectively.

In that case, Uss's relatively small stature as a regional politician would harm his chances against the more ambitious Khloponin with his solid financial backing.

"His [Uss's] biggest card against Khloponin is that he wouldn't allow the meddling of [business] oligarchs from the side. But on the other hand, he is connected himself to various financial and industrial groups."

The campaign has seen a number of ups and downs. Lebed's younger brother Aleksei, governor of the neighboring region of Khakassia, pulled out of contention last month, saying the election was too "dirty."

But the Carnegie Center's Titkov says the race has been relatively clean compared with others in Russia -- and even with previous Krasnoyarsk campaigns.

One of the factors in the race is the opinion of Anatolii Bykov, a controversial and influential local magnate in the region's notoriously shady aluminum industry. The businessman had loud disputes with former Governor Lebed, who sided with Russian Aluminum in a bid to take over the company Bykov formerly headed, Krasnoyarsk Aluminum.

Bykov was later found guilty of planning the murder of a former business partner, but was released from prison last June. He is now backing Uss despite his enmity with the candidate's other backers at Russia Aluminum.

State Duma deputy Sergei Glazyev, an economist and a prominent Communist Party ideologue, is also running, but lags fourth in the polls.

The Kremlin under President Vladimir Putin has in the past exerted a heavy hand in regional elections. But it has largely stayed out of Krasnoyarsk's tangled politics so far, including the current election battle.

Titkov says the Kremlin usually withholds backing candidates in close races, not least because of the perception that a loss by a Kremlin-approved office seeker might harm presidential authority.

The campaign was recently in danger of becoming unbalanced for other reasons. Uss, Pimashkov and Khloponin were each threatened with various court cases filed by other hopefuls in the race who were seeking to nullify their candidacies on technicalities. All of the suits were struck down at the last minute, however, although some are due to be revisited after the vote.

The voting comes during a hard time for the region. Despite its wealth of natural resources, Krasnoyarsk faces a budget deficit after enjoying several years of surpluses thanks to high international metals prices. Local politicians and Moscow analysts also tie the shortfall to Putin's regional reforms, which have squeezed greater taxes out of the country's provinces and allocated less for social services.

In a struggle to appropriate greater financial sources from wealthier industrial districts, Lebed had locked horns with the governors of the semi-autonomous Krasnoyarsk regions of Taimyr and Evenkia, which clamored to maintain their relative degrees of independence.

Lebed's death put the debate on hold, and the election will likely set the stage for Krasnoyarsk's future struggles.

Korgunyuk says Krasnoyarsk's development will depend on the priorities of its new governor -- specifically on whether he will seek, above all, to strengthen his standing with the region's financial groups or address broader problems.

The regional players Uss and Pimashkov would likely try to boost their own positions, whereas businessman Khloponin and Communist Party stalwart Glazyev would probably benefit more by trying to improve the lot of Krasnoyarsk as a whole.

But Titkov says the interests of the region's various office holders, whoever they may be, will not change following the election.

"Even if the governor is Khloponin -- who is now a lobbyist for the northern regions -- he will in any case to some degree be forced to push for the interests of the southern part of the region, and that is to say, the region as a whole."

In other words, Titkov says, Krasnoyarsk's structural problems and the vector of its battles will not change anytime soon.