Pre-election Violence Grips St. Pete Region

ST. PETERSBURG -- The election for governor of the Leningrad region is almost two months away, but the race has already turned violent.

Last week, three men assaulted Anatoly Yezhelev, a campaign worker for former Governor Vadim Gustov, on a railway platform in the town of Vsevolozhsk, knocking out two teeth and breaking his leg.

Yezhelev said that the attackers took campaign documents - but left some $2,000 he was carrying.

Also Saturday - and also in Vsevolozhsk - a bomb exploded in the dacha of former city police chief Anatoly Ponidelko, another gubernatorial candidate, destroying a sauna. Nobody was injured.

Both say the attacks were political. "It was all about the election campaign," Yezhelev, 67, said Thursday. "I know one of the other candidates who was involved in this," he added, refusing to elaborate.

"It was purely political," said Ponidelko, who served as police chief of St. Petersburg and the surrounding Leningrad region from 1996 until last summer.

Almost immediately after being appointed police chief in 1996, the flamboyant Ponidelko made a name for himself - and a lot of enemies - by announcing at news conference that members of the notorious Tambovskaya criminal organization had infiltrated the administration of St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev.

He also infuriated rank and file police officers by publicly calling them "fat, drunk and corrupt." He was fired last summer and failed in an attempt to win a seat in St. Petersburg's Legislative Assembly last December.

Those elections were marred by faked campaign literature and slates, threats, beatings and drive-by shootings. Election violence reached its climax with the Nov. 20 assassination of State Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova, who was supporting a slate of candidates. Law enforcement officials have since said thatthey consider Starovoitova's political activities as the most likely motive.

Some 31 candidates have announced their intention to run for Leningrad region governor in elections scheduled for Sept. 19. Thus far, only two - Gustov and Fyodor Skrudnyev, who until earlier this year was President Boris Yeltsin's representative in the region - have gathered the 13,000 signatures required to qualify for the ballot.

Gustov was elected governor in Sept. 1996, and resigned last year when he was tapped to join the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Gustov was fired in April after seven months in office and has become a leading contender for his old job, which has not been permanently filled. His former deputy Valery Serdyukov has been serving as acting governor.

Lying in bed in his downtown St. Petersburg apartment, Yezhelev pointed at his injured leg and said he won't be able to walk for more than a month. He said, however, that the attack could have been worse, noting that his mobile telephone rang during the assault, scaring off his assailants.

Yezhelev added that he refuses to be intimidated.

"These attacks don't scare me," he said. "In fact, I am more determined than ever to go work even harder on Gustov's political campaign."