Volgograd Forum, January 2, 2001

Local Elections

     On December 24, while the Western Hemisphere was getting ready to celebrate Christmas, citizens of the Volgograd Oblast were going to the polling stations to elect a new Governor and Mayors of most cities. The Governor's elections were held in accordance with a new law, which allowed only one round of voting.
     If you remember, the passing of that law in the Oblast Duma caused protests among the reformist groups here (see my August report). The Communist Governor Nikolai Maksyuta had a relatively low rating and little chances of being reelected under the previous election law when a candidate who did not get more than 50 percent of ballots had to compete with another candidate in the run-off. That was why Communist deputies of the Oblast Duma decided to change the election law so as to have only one
round of voting. In this case the united left-wing electorate would stand against the reformist one which is usually split among several candidates and the Communist candidate gets better chances. Immediately after these intentions became known Volgograd reformist groups organized a Committee for Fair Elections that campaigned against the proposed changes. On August 16, the eve of the Oblast Duma meeting, we organized public debates between a Communist Deputy of the Oblast Duma and two members of the Committee for Fair Elections .
     It all turned out as was predicted. There were eight candidates. Governor Maksyuta got 36% of the united left-wing vote, concentrated mainly in rural areas, and won. The protest ballots were unevenly split among other seven mostly reformist candidates.
     Second was another speaker of the Volgograd Forum - the Volzhski industrialist Oleg Savchenko (see my April report). Taking into consideration that he became a registered resident of the Volgograd Oblast only a year ago and was absolutely unknown to the electorate, he got a remarkable 28% in the Oblast and was first in the City of Volgograd beating Mayor Chekhov who came out third with only 11%.
     The number of parties and candidates often confuses the voter, even more so on the national level. To limit the negative consequences of such confusion President Putin introduced to the State Duma a week ago a new bill on political parties. According to it, a political party may be allowed to take part in an election for any office, only if it has no less than 10,000 registered members in at least half of the Russian provinces. At present only the Communist Party meets these requirements. The reformist parties
would have to merge with each other. Even then, according to analysts, there would be 10 - 15 political parties in Russia.
     Volzhski Mayor Anatoly Shiryaev did not manage to retain his position. Due to his scandalous behavior and outrageous statements (including anti-Semitic), he became notorious even to the Communist Party and lost its support. Another Communist has become the new Volzhski Mayor - Igor Voronin, director of the "Energotechmash" Company. He is said to be more pragmatic than his predecessor.
     The other reason why Communists win local elections is that they have become less orthodox and do not use the old militant rhetoric that could scare off moderate voters. Still it is regrettable that at the helm of the Oblast for another four-year term there will be a person that is not supported by two-thirds of voters.
     The similar situation is formed in other Russian provinces. In 33 of them where Governor's elections took place recently Communist candidates won in 21. It means that those oracles (including myself) who predicted at the beginning of the nineties that the Communist Party would die a natural death in a matter of several years were wrong. Evidently Socialist ideas will find a wide support as long as a considerable part of the population is poor and leads a miserable existence.
     Meanwhile last year there have been tangible improvements in this respect in the country. According to a recent poll 36% Russians think last year was better for them than the previous one in comparison to only 3% of those who answered the same question at the end of 1999.
     In December 1998 we held a Forum devoted to the 50-th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights (see my report of that time). There were people in the audience representing well-known and outspoken organizations like the Volgograd Association of GULAG Victims, the "Chernobyl Alliance" representing people who suffered from radiation while putting down the fire at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, the Volgograd Committee for Refugees', well-known lawyers etc.
     At the Forum all of them were critical about the state of human rights in Russia and in the Oblast and spoke in favour of establishing the post of independent Volgograd Oblast's Commissioner on Human Rights. After the meeting that proposal was widely discussed in the media and reached the Oblast Duma, which is a good example of the Forum's high profile in the region. The Duma passed a bill on Oblast's Commissioner on Human Rights. But the candidacy for this office caused disappointment among local human rights groups. The Oblast legislature nominated former Communist State Duma
Deputy Mikhail Tarantsov for this office. But they could do nothing because Communists had an almost two-third majority in the Oblast Duma. The appointment took place last spring and ever since many human rights groups refused to cooperate with the new Commissioner. Trying to find the way out of stalemate we organized a Forum meeting using as an occasion just another anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights. We invited Mr. Tarantsov as a speaker and all most prominent human rights activists in the city. The event took place on December 7. Mr. Tarantsov had a hard time and had to
answer tough questions but eventually the climate in the audience got warmer and the participants agreed that it would be in the common interests to cooperate more closely.
     There is no lack of comments here on what turn the US-Russian relations would take with the new Republican Administration. Some say President Bush will be tough on all issues and the relations will deteriorate. Others assume that while the Republicans will be tough on some issues like strategic defense program but will be less inclined to interfere globally on humanitarian motives which, after Kosovo, has been one of the main irritants here and led to the growth of anti-Americanism.

     I saw the GCVOA site at http://community.cleveland.com/cc/gcvoa  It is a very good idea to have it and I hope more people will learn about our projects. I will circulate the news about it here.

Alexander Yevreinov

Volgograd Free Speech Forum


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