Leningrad Regional Elections Turn Ugly

ST. PETERSBURG -- A vote to determine who will control the Ireland-sized Leningrad region is a month away, and already the leading candidates are facing allegations of theft, misappropriation of funds, journalist-beating and illegal moose hunting.

What's more, the official in charge of overseeing the election, Vladimir Peelin, says he fears for his life because several candidates have threatened him.

"[There is a campaign of] discrimination and persecution" under way against his elections commission by some of the candidates, Peelin said at a news conference Wednesday.

He did not name specific candidates. But he did add that Leningrad region police had denied his requests that they assign officers to protect him.

There are nearly two dozen candidates on the ballot to rule the region, which surrounds but does not include St. Petersburg. The front-runner is former First Deputy Prime Minister Vadim Gustov - who left the governorship behind when he joined former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's Cabinet and now wants his old job back.

Gustov is competing against, among others, former St. Petersburg police chief Anatoly Ponidelko - who as police chief berated his own police officers as "fat," ordered all precinct walls repainted beige and famously claimed to have a list of St. Petersburg City Hall officials who were members of an organized crime syndicate. Ponidelko never produced the list, saying it was a "police secret."

Also running are ultranationalist Yury Belyayev, who earlier this decade led Russian volunteers to fight in the wars of the former Yugoslavia, and was once convicted of inciting racial hatred; Valery Serdyukov, the man Gustov left behind as acting governor and probably his toughest competition; and Damir Shadayev, a member of the region's legislature.

The race has been a merry-go-round of mudslinging.

Last week the nationalist Belyayev accused acting Governor Serdyukov of misappropriating more than $18 million from the region's coal purchases over the past five years. Belyayev said he sent letters to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and to prosecutors detailing the accusations.

That same week, a local newspaper, Nevskoye Vremya, reported that Shadayev's bodyguards severely beat two journalists who were trying to interview Shadayev at his estate on an island in the Vuoksa River.

The newspaper reported that Shadayev routinely violates the law by shooting moose, foxes and wolves from a private helicopter near a special environmental zone. Shadayev was arrested for illegal possession of weapons in 1994, Nevskoye Vremya added.

Serdyukov, for his part, has blamed Gustov for the region's 2.2 billion ruble ($88 million) debt burden. And former police chief Ponidelko - in a claim reminiscent of his famous City Hall mafia list - has hinted he will release documentation implicating Gustov and Serdyukov in embezzling money earmarked for building an oil terminal and port on the shores of the Gulf of Finland.

The region is predicting a budgetary shortfall of about $30 million in 1999, and Gustov's opponents blame a tax holiday he introduced for investors.

Western companies, including Caterpillar, Philip Morris and Ford, who have invested or will invest tens of millions of dollars in the region's economy, will not have to pay local taxes until they recoup their initial investments. Gustov's team argues that this is in the region's long-term interest.