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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Election Graft a Grave Issue




Borodino Cinema was a scene to warm the heart of any democrat this Sunday. On a bitterly cold day voters bundled in leather and fur crowded the lobby and the restaurant and lined up at the polling booths.


Vendors set up tables to sell hot dogs, pastries, fish, bread, hunks of fried liver, and, that elixir of representative government, vodka in liter bottles. Sailors in black greatcoats swarmed in to vote. Babushkas trundled about looking for somewhere to stick their ballots.


There was a sense that everyone was part of a great tide of history: a spontaneous electoral huzzah for Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko, who swept back into power in the Far Eastern Primorye region with 69 percent of the vote.


Anyone who voted incorrectly was bound to feel pretty silly the next day when he or she read the press release from the regional administration. "In some territories of Primorye, the number of Yevgeny Nazdratenko's supporters exceeded 90 percent," the governor's office noted.


But somehow I kept running into soreheads who voted for wrong guys. In fact, in two dozen interviews at polling stations, I found only three people who had cast their ballots for Nazdratenko. Most voted for Alexander Kirilichev, head of the Primorsk Shipping Company in nearby Nakhodka, who received only 16 percent of the official vote. The lesson is this: Foreigners who pretend they understand Russia are kidding themselves. Go to your local regional administration for the answers.


It was a strange build-up to a landslide. Two popular candidates, former Mayor Viktor Cherepkov and State Duma Deputy Svetlana Orlova, were hounded from the race. Theaters and meeting halls kept canceling reservations when Kirilichev tried to schedule rallies.


And then some ugly news hit the press three days before the vote. An opposition newspaper, Dalnevostochnye Vedomosti, published a report that it said was written by the region's former presidential representative and Federal Security Service chief, alleging broad ties between ranking Primorye regional officials and organized crime. According to the report by Viktor Kondratov, a handful of vice governors had stolen regional funds and used crime families to protect their businesses, run smuggling schemes and assault reporters. (First Vice Governor Konstantin Tolstoshein, whose alleged mob ties were detailed at length in the report, won a Duma seat Sunday.)


Kondratov is no longer in town, but an FSB official said the report appeared to be authentic. It is in keeping with Kondratov's frequent public statements that he had provided prosecutors with evidence of alleged criminal activity by Nazdratenko administration officials, but no one followed up.


In fact, the only regional official who would say anything about the report did not deny its authenticity. But he added: "Kondratov is no longer presidential representative. Why should we comment on such garbage?"


Perhaps Nina Pavlovna could say why. She is a 62-year-old businesswoman who would give only her first name and patronymic because she fears retribution. In 1997, she invested her life savings of 25,000 rubles (then worth about $4,200) in a pyramid scheme co-founded by Nazdratenko's wife and heavily promoted on television by the governor. The scheme collapsed and Nina Pavlovna lost everything.


Now she was voting for Kirilichev with little hope he would win. "Kirilichev is basically a very good man," she said. "He knows how to manage things. But Nazdratenko is just a former ore mining foreman, and he doesn't know how to manage."


Vladimir Yefimenko, a 49-year-old driver, said he has reason to be skeptical of the vote. Last time around, he found several dead neighbors on the polling list. He raised a stink about it, and officials dropped by to make sure all the voters in his apartment were alive. But he could not help wondering how many dead souls would cast ballots.


The Council of Europe and the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe sent 26 poll-watchers to Vladivostok. But the number of observers was insufficient for the 1,500 polling places in the Primorye region, and Kirilichev supporters are already claiming fraud.


Never mind the whiners. Yevgeny Ivanovich - academician, muzhik, world aristocratic governor of the year, a man who by his own admission has never made a mistake - will lead Primorye for another four years.


Got a problem with that, pal? Hey, 30 rubles will buy you a liter of vodka, and we're sure you will start seeing things our way.