Vladivostok's mayor has a worrisome past

Power: An alleged former mob enforcer takes office amid fears that criminal groups have become the government.

August 10, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia - It was only his second week on the job, but Mayor Vladimir Nikolaev seemed to have all the polish and poise of Russia's new breed of elected official.

The 30-year-old food and timber tycoon smoothly sketched ambitious plans last week for redeveloping this scruffy capital of Russia's Far East, pledged to fight corruption and marveled at how far Russia has advanced in the past decade-and-a-half.

"Thank God that we have passed to the democratic path of politics," he said.

But some Vladivostok residents say they have more fear than respect for their new mayor. In talking so resolutely about the future, they say, Nikolaev is trying to bury his violent past.

According to an authoritative Russian book, Organized Crime in the Far East: Common and Regional Features, Nikolaev served as an enforcer in the early 1990s for a criminal organization notorious for staging gunbattles in Vladivostok's streets.

Convicted of beating the chairman of a regional sports committee in 1999, the baby-faced Nikolaev - nicknamed "Winnie the Pooh" - served 18 months of a 3 1/2 -year sentence before his release under a general amnesty. He lost a civil suit last month for an alleged death threat against a political foe; he is appealing the verdict.

"He's a tank without a brake," said Viktor Cherepkov, a member of the Duma, Russia's parliament, who unsuccessfully ran against Nikolaev in last month's elections. "He is violent and without any borders."

Cherepkov, once Nikolaev's most formidable election opponent, was attacked with a hand grenade July 10 as he left his campaign headquarters at 2:30 a.m. Now he walks with the aid of a cane.

With Nikolaev at the mayor's desk, Cherepkov said, criminal groups have become the government: "They are the power."

Frontier seaport

Vladivostok, a bustling port city of 700,000, is scattered over a series of green hills jutting above the deep blue of the Pacific; its dockyards have long served as the home base for Russia's Pacific fleet.

Seven time zones ahead of Moscow, the city has the rough-hewn feel of a frontier seaport with its hodge-podge of elegant pre-Bolshevik buildings and bleak apartment blocks, virtually all of them in need of renovation. Elevators don't work; electricity flickers on and off; pipes leak so much there is periodic water rationing.

Almost a third of the city's residents live below the official poverty line. The birthrate is low, even by Russian standards, and young people are fleeing to the big cities of eastern Russia.

Whether despite or because of the poverty, rival crime groups have skirmished over control of the city since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. They have left behind a trail of corpses.

This is the center of the Far East's seafood-smuggling industry, worth an estimated $1 billion annually. Criminals and corrupt officials also vie to control the trade in cheap consumer goods from China, gold, scrap metal and the region's vast timber reserves.

Talking with foreign journalists for 40 minutes last week, the mayor seemed eager to shed his "Winnie the Pooh" image and claim political legitimacy.

Support of Kremlin

The Kremlin already seems forgiving of his past. Russia's Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shojgu recruited Nikolaev in 2003 to serve as local campaign chairman for the United Russia Party, the Kremlin's ally in the Duma, for last December's legislative elections.

In his office, he keeps an Orthodox Bible by his right hand and Vladimir V. Putin's portrait over his desk. "It is a source of great pride for our country that we have such a president," the mayor said.

The Kremlin's support for Nikolaev puzzles some of his foes.

"Everyone expects our president to fight corruption and crime," said Nikolai V. Markovtsev, a member of the regional legislative assembly who finished second to Nikolaev in the election for mayor. "Putin says all the right things, but nothing is done."

Markovtsev has accused Nikolaev in a lawsuit of threatening last December to "soak" him - to kill him, in the criminal jargon of Russia. Markovtsev alleges the threat was made in front of a dozen witnesses in the assembly's cloakroom.

A regional court ruled in Markovtsev's favor last month, but Nikolaev has appealed the decision.

The election campaign was hard-fought even by the standards of this city. Before the first round of voting July 4, candidates with names similar to those of two contenders - Cherepkov and the incumbent mayor, Yuri Kopylov - appeared on the ballot.

And the city Elections Commission chief and some members were unexpectedly replaced. The commission promptly declared Cherepkov ineligible to run - accusing him of illegally using his legislative phone and fax machine for campaigning. (Cherepkov appealed to the courts and remained in the race pending its ruling.)

Nikolaev won 27 percent of the vote, followed by Cherepkov with 26 percent. Kopylov trailed with 18 percent; 20 other candidates split the remainder.

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