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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Governor Pits Record Against Zhirinovsky's Glitz

BELGOROD, Southern Russia -- Yevgeny Savchenko spent Friday morning giving awards to high school students and attending a ribbon-cutting for a new commuter train f just the daily schedule you would expect from the governor of a region of 1.5 million who is running for re-election.

Only you wouldn't expect so many national television crews to be following him around. But that's what happens when Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky is on the ballot.

"I expected it to enliven the campaign, and that's what happened," Savchenko said as he took a ceremonial ride in the new train from Belgorod Station to Belomestnaya, the nearest suburban stop.

He says he's not especially worried about the money and glitz that the flamboyant Zhirinovsky has brought to the race.

"I have once again been convinced that campaign techniques can change the result only 5 or 10 percent in one direction," said Savchenko, a member of the Agrarian Party, the Communists' rural allies. "The trust that has been earned outside of the election campaign is what will determine the results."

If Savchenko beats Zhirinovsky in Sunday's voting f and many people here think he has an excellent chance to win f he will have boosted his national recognition by beating one of the country's best-known politicians. Savchenko's image of a down-to-earth kind of guy, freely mixing with crowds, presents a stark contrast with Zhirinovsky's half-dozen pushy bodyguards and his movie star demeanor.

But that's not to say that Savchenko's campaign has been less sophisticated than Zhirinovsky's. Every evening, television viewers see Savchenko's ad f a series of frightening images of a sinister-looking Zhirinovsky accompanied by ominous music.

Savchenko's slogan f "My Strength Comes From the Warmth of My Homeland, Not From a Thirst for Power" f is a direct dig at Zhirinovsky, who is referred to by the newspaper Belgorodskiye Izvestia, a Savchenko mouthpiece, as the "guest from Moscow."

Zhirinovsky's LDPR has a noticeable presence in Belgorod and seems to have won over a good portion of the population. But most of his strength lies with young people and his campaign seems largely addressed to them. "All the young people love him," said Natasha Maslinnikova, 23, who works on a farm about 80 kilometers northeast of Belgorod and wears two LDPR buttons on her jacket.

Zhirinovsky held a late-night rally Thursday in front of the Yuzhnaya Hotel where he is staying. The rapper Bogdan Tikhomir performed, and the event was attended by several hundred people, many of whom looked too young to vote.

Older voters may be more likely to respond to the anti-Zhirinovsky campaign, and to the sheer force of inertia, not to mention the Soviet habit of voting for the candidate the authorities put forward.

"I don't like the old, but the new scares me," said Sveta, 39, who was selling cosmetics earlier this week in Belgorod's central market.

"Zhirinovsky behaves badly, and our people aren't used to that," said Sergei Yeryomin, political reporter for Belgorodskaya Pravda.

In some ways, Savchenko's incumbency is a disadvantage. For one thing, he is associated with President Boris Yeltsin, who is enormously unpopular throughout the country and has never been a favorite in Belgorod, part of the rural Red Belt where voters favor the left.

Yeltsin appointed Savchenko governor in 1993 and Savchenko lent him his support in the 1996 president elections. Both Zhirinovsky and Communist candidate Mikhail Beskhmelnitsyn, who has been endorsed by the liberal Yabloko party, have criticized Savchenko for the privatizations of major metallurgical plants, saying the region's residents were shortchanged.

This is not the first time Savchenko has run a race for governor. An election was held in 1995, when Savchenko's main rival was Beskhmelnitsyn. Savchenko won by a large margin.

"Then the elections went by calmly, there wasn't such harshness ? there wasn't such pressure placed on the voters," Savchenko said.