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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Obama Inspires Long-Shot Bid

APCrima meeting vendors in his campaign to lead Volgograd’s Srednyaya Akhtuba district. He also admires Putin.

SREDNYAYA AKHTUBA, Volgograd Region — An African-born farmer is making an improbable run for office, inspired by U.S. President Barack Obama and undaunted by racial attitudes that have changed little in decades.

Joaquim Crima, a 37-year-old native of Guinea Bissau who settled in southern Russia after earning a degree at a local university, is promising to battle corruption and bring development to his district on the Volga River.

But the idea of a black man running for office is so unusual that Crima is being called “the Russian Obama,” an image he has embraced.

“I like Obama as a person and as a politician because he proved to the world what everyone thought was impossible. I think I can learn some things from him,” Crima said, sitting on his shady verandah in this town of 11,000, where he lives with his wife Anait, their 10-year-old son and an extended clan of ethnic Armenian relatives.

In truth, Crima’s quest to become head of the Srednyaya Akhtuba district is highly unlikely, not least because he lacks the political capital and connections to make it happen. And racism and racial stereotypes are still deeply ingrained.

“They are often taunted on the metro and in the market,” said Lydia Troncale of the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy, a nonprofit organization that works with African immigrants.

Crima gets along well with his fellow townspeople, but to play it safe he is accompanied almost everywhere by his muscular brother-in-law.

Crima, who came to Russia in 1989 and holds a degree from Volgograd State Pedagogical University, believes that he has what it takes to fix the problems in his district, where some residents still lack potable water and use outhouses. Unpaved streets, where goats graze, turn to mud after a rain.

About 55,000 people live in the district’s 18 villages and towns.

“The current district head has been in power for 10 years, but he hasn’t done anything for people here,” Crima said. “There are young families that need housing, who need opportunities. This town and Russia are ready for a change.”

Crima wanted to come to the Soviet Union because it supported his West African homeland when it gained independence in 1974. He describes Russia as a “great power” and admires Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He married a local woman, learned to speak fluent Russian and earned his citizenship.


Ivan Sekretarev / AP
He has lived in the region since 1989, but some say that’s not long enough.

He farms 20 hectares of land, growing watermelons and other melons, which he and his wife sell along the town’s main road. He employs about 20 people to help.

But for many of Crima’s neighbors, that’s not enough.

“He hasn’t lived all of our issues, and he didn’t grow up around us; he’s not a kolkhoznik,” produce vendor Vladimir Kachenko said. “If I need help building a house, he can’t help me get the required permits because he hasn’t gone through it himself.”

Still, many in town admire Crima’s audacity. When he walks down the street in a crisp white shirt and tie, residents shake his hand and congratulate him on his decision to run.

“I haven’t heard his platform, but he’s a nice person,” said Denis Duma, 27. “I would change my party affiliation for him.”

Privately, however, some laugh at what they see as Crima’s naivety. A department store saleswoman who refused to give her name said she would not vote for him because she doesn’t want to “live in Africa.” Another said she would not vote for a Negro.

But such sentiments remain common in Russia, and Crima himself put up billboards that read, “I will toil like a Negro.”

The signs were up for only a couple of days before being replaced by ads for the main pro-Kremlin party’s candidate, Yury Khrustov, a former teacher.

Crima is a member of United Russia but is running in the Oct. 11 election as an independent against five other candidates.

His candidacy is part of a standard tactic in Russia used to draw the protest vote and allow people to vent frustration while posing no threat to the government’s favored candidate, said Anna Stepnova, editor of Delovoye Povolzhye, a newspaper in Volgograd.

Crima’s campaign manager, Vladimir Kritsky, acknowledged that a victory for his client was close to impossible but said the Kremlin had promised Crima a seat on the district council in 2011.

“He will be able to do a lot of good for the region,” said Kritsky, 33, a former special operations commander. “He’s a very smart guy, he speaks five languages … this is an experiment that the Kremlin will be interested in supporting.”

There is deep dissatisfaction with the current head of the Srednyaya Akhtuba district, who locals say sold a lot of land to out-of-towners while purchasing a large villa and a plane for himself. The incumbent is not running for re-election.

Despite that, many in Srednyaya Akhtuba see no point in voting in elections they say are already predetermined.

“I’ve lost hope in our system and our people,” said Taisya Kirilova, 64. “He can want to change things, but alone, he can’t accomplish anything.”

Crima shrugs off voters’ cynicism.

“If local residents want a change, they need to vote for it,” Crima said. “Plus, I like surprising people.”