Yeltsin Fires Official in Vote Scandal
As if there wasn’t enough political turmoil in this country that has been without a government for two weeks, heads began rolling here Saturday over an election scandal in Russia’s third-largest city, Nizhny Novgorod.
The case of the scuttled mayoral vote is so tainted with crooked characters and bad behavior that it was unclear what finally prompted President Boris N. Yeltsin to fire his representative in the Volga River city and reprimand two other federal officials with minor roles in the region.
The three officials were punished “for unsatisfactory organization of work,” the presidential press service reported elliptically.
Moscow’s ire was first raised by the victory last Sunday of a thrice-convicted criminal, Andrei Klimentiev, in voting to choose a mayor for the reform-showcase city of 1.5 million. On top of his blemished past, the 43-year-old businessman is a sworn enemy of former Nizhny Novgorod regional Gov. Boris Y. Nemtsov, now a first deputy prime minister and Yeltsin’s apparent choice to succeed him at the Kremlin.
Federal election laws prohibit campaigns by convicted felons, but no such barrier was enacted by regional election officials in Nizhny Novgorod, the city 250 miles east of Moscow that was known during Soviet times as Gorky. Although Klimentiev still faces a retrial on charges of embezzling $2 million from a government loan, the two convictions for which he served jail time in the 1980s were for petty offenses: cardsharping and distributing pornographic videos.
After Klimentiev won the mayoral ballot, Yeltsin said Tuesday that he was “deeply concerned” that a candidate with a criminal record could rise to power in a major city. The regional election commission invalidated the election the next day, saying that claims by defeated candidates that Klimentiev had bought votes were what motivated its decision.
Klimentiev showed up in court Thursday to demand a reversal of the election commission annulment, only to be arrested for “instigating civil disobedience” by urging his supporters to protest outside the court. He remains in custody but is now being held to ensure his appearance at a retrial on charges that he pocketed $2 million from a $30-million Finance Ministry loan intended for a Nizhny Novgorod shipyard.
On Saturday, Yeltsin fired Yuri Lebedev as presidential liaison in Nizhny Novgorod and reprimanded regional chief of staff Sergei Samoilov and Viktoria Mitina, the Kremlin official to whom Yeltsin’s regional emissaries report.
Yeltsin fired former Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin and his entire Cabinet on March 23, and although most ministers remain in their posts in an acting capacity, much is still uncertain about who will be in the next government and when it will be in place.
Communists and nationalists in the Duma, the lower house of parliament, have warned that they may try to vote down Yeltsin’s designated prime minister, Sergei V. Kiriyenko. Yeltsin has agreed to negotiate with the rival political factions on other Cabinet posts, but he has made clear that he wants the 35-year-old Kiriyenko confirmed as the new government chief.
Russian media have been quick to accuse Yeltsin of bungling in the Nizhny Novgorod matter, both for failing to prevent the candidacy of a convict and for apparent interference with the local election commission to get the outcome scrapped.
“They invalidated the results of the election in the name of protecting Russian democracy and put the person chosen by the people in prison,” the newspaper Noviye Izvestia observed Saturday. “One can hardly imagine a more vivid example of the authorities’ weakness.”
The Klimentiev case has had the unusual consequence of uniting the squabbling Duma deputies in a campaign to prevent future candidacies by ex-cons. Communist Duma Chairman Gennady N. Seleznyov and Deputy Duma Chairman Vladimir Ryzhkov of the government-aligned Our Home Is Russia faction both called Friday for legislative measures to bar citizens with criminal pasts from running in any election.