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Russia: Two Regional Election Scandals Erupt

Two regional election scandals are brewing in Russia, with election officials in the vast Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk yesterday invalidating the results of a gubernatorial election held earlier this month. The local election commission cited numerous campaign and electoral violations for its decision, a move the country's Central Election Commission chief has criticized in strong terms. Meanwhile, a court today temporarily ordered that ballots in a mayoral race in central Russia be impounded. With calls growing for the president to appoint regional leaders, politicians say the scandals represent a blow to democracy in Russia.

Moscow, 30 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In one of two new election scandals in Russia, officials in a sprawling Siberian region yesterday declared invalid an election the results of which were announced a week ago.

The move came just before a court in central Russia ordered ballots in a mayoral race temporarily impounded after one of the candidates filed a complaint.

Both decisions have provoked an uproar in Moscow, where politicians and analysts are calling them a blow to the democratic process.

In the first case, 10 of 14 members on the Krasnoyarsk election commission said enough campaign and electoral violations had taken place to nullify voting won by Aleksandr Khloponin. The former managing director of the Norilsk Nickel metals giant and current head of Krasnoyarsk's Taimyr Autonomous Okrug won in a runoff on 22 September against Aleksandr Uss, speaker of the regional parliament.

Some analysts said yesterday's decision was likely the result of pressure from the region's aluminum industry, which had backed Uss.

Commission head Georgii Kostrykin was reported today to have been hospitalized after suffering a heart attack. He had been due to address the regional parliament to explain his commission's decision.

The runoff came after a first round of voting held in early September to replace Aleksandr Lebed, the popular outspoken former general who died in a helicopter crash last April.

The regional election commission has rescheduled voting for March of next year. Khloponin filed suit against the decision today, calling it the result of "political pressure inside Krasnoyarsk" and saying that it violates "democratic principles." The case may take up to two months to conclude.

A group of 17 deputies from Krasnoyarsk's 42-seat legislature, meanwhile, sent a letter to Central Election Commission chief Aleksandr Veshnyakov to overturn the decision.

Officials from the Central Election Commission today flew to the region to review the decision. Interfax quoted Veshnyakov as calling the regional commission's decision "illogical and illegal."

Sergei Komaritsyn, a sociologist and editor of "Vechernii Krasnoyarsk" newspaper, agreed, calling the decision to nullify the results "very unconvincing." He said part of the decision concerned fake ballot papers issued to lower turnout figures, an irregularity that would not have affected the outcome of the election itself.

Komaritsyn added that the regional election commission was required to investigate specific violations brought to its attention, after which it could have declared isolated local results void, instead of simply deeming the entire election invalid. "No one dealt concretely with any complaints, but the results in the entire territory of Krasnoyarsk were declared void, which is a very big surprise," Komaritsyn said.

Komaritsyn said that the commission could not have come to its decision independently and that the force behind the announcement likely came from the powerful Russian aluminum conglomerate, or RusAl, which had backed Uss. "There are 14 people on the election commission. It would have been necessary to work with those 10 members who voted for that decision, but objectively, this is in favor of the Russian Aluminum financial-industrial group," Komaritsyn said.

Most observers expect the election results will be allowed to stand. But Komaritsyn said the time during which they will remain under contention will allow RusAl to push through a number of pending decisions in its favor before the new governor takes office.

Among the issues is the restructuring of the Krasnoyarsk Aluminum Plant -- in which RusAl has a controlling interest -- as well as the status of energy and chemical companies that supply RusAl.

There are also land-privatization questions tied to a newly enacted federal Land Code. Without a new governor, Krasnoyarsk will most likely put off adopting its own land code, allowing RusAl to buy the land it now leases cheaply.

Komaritsyn said the long-term results of the decision of the election commission will be "very tragic." The region has lacked "normal" executive authority for the six months since Lebed's death, and the longer Krasnoyarsk remains without a governor, the harder it will be to solve the region's pressing financial problems.

The scandal erupted a day before a court in the central Russian region of Nizhnii Novgorod temporarily ordered that ballots cast during a mayoral election in the region's eponymous capital be impounded.

The move came after one of the candidates, parliamentary Deputy Vadim Bulavinov, filed a complaint. With all votes counted, Bulavinov, with 35.57 percent of the vote, was up by just above one-half of 1 percent over incumbent Mayor Yurii Lebedev, who had 34.93 percent.

Bulavinov said he could not be sure the votes could otherwise be authenticated after being counted. Not wanting the results, and thereby his victory, to be nullified, Bulavinov said there were no violations during the vote count.

He withdrew his complaint today, however, and the court lifted its order.

The court decision followed an especially dirty campaign, with 29.5 percent of voters casting their ballots against both candidates and Lebedev filing suit to ask that the results be invalidated.

In the wake of the scandals, several prominent politicians today said that losing candidates had to show honor in defeat and not contest elections results.

Central Orlov Oblast Governor Yegor Stroev protested against calls that Russian governors and other regional leaders be appointed by the president, saying in statements reported by Interfax that "these ideas are the peak of mindlessness and will lead to a dead end."

Boris Nemtsov, leader of the liberal Union of Rightist Forces, also criticized such calls. Interfax reported him as saying that the election scandals "threaten the very right of citizens to elect their authorities and control their actions."