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World Perspective | RUSSIA

Taking Less-Traveled High Road, Regional Chief Outwits Kremlin

June 27, 1997|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — He is Russia's most notorious governor.

After three years of rule by Yevgeny Nazdratenko, the once-rich Pacific coastal region around the port city of Vladivostok has turned into a hell of unpaid wages, unlighted homes and rampant graft.

Nazdratenko intimidates the press, feuds openly with his mayor and blames Moscow when billions of rubles in federal money are missing from his office.

But he is elected, so he cannot legally be fired. And this week, Russia's reformist government was outwitted as it tried to bend the constitution to quietly squeeze Nazdratenko out and restore order to the anarchic Far East.

Nazdratenko not only sidestepped this attack but also, unlike the ministers trying to oust him, stayed on the right side of the law as he did so.

While enemies of the embarrassed liberal ministers jeer at them for breaking the rules of their own democracy, Nazdratenko is now reveling in the improbable new position he has taken up on the moral high ground.

"A sort of test was conducted in the case of Nazdratenko: A precedent could have been created for dismissing an elected governor through a rather questionable behind-the-scenes intrigue," gloated Alexander I. Lebed, himself sacked from running the Russian Security Council in a skirmish with liberals last fall. "This was meant to show all the governors their place."

But, Lebed continued, the result was totally the opposite: "Nazdratenko survived and retained his position."

It was Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin who appointed the hardened former welder to the post of governor of Russia's Maritime District in 1993. Nazdratenko was subsequently elected for a second term in 1995 with the backing of local former Communist factory bosses, well before Yeltsin ended a long love affair with hard-liners and moved back into the liberal camp.

The new Kremlin team's attempt to unseat Nazdratenko began in May, when houses in Vladivostok were getting only six hours of electricity a day and teachers' salaries had not been paid for six months. Yeltsin appointed a new presidential representative, Viktor Kondratov, the tough former boss of the local security police--formerly associated with the KGB. He was supposed to oversee all Nazdratenko's financial dealings and assume many of his powers.

Next, First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Y. Nemtsov, one of the leading lights of the new government, visited the Far Eastern Maritime Territory on June 11.

After hearing Nemtsov's report on the catastrophic economic situation in the Far East, Yeltsin recommended early elections to elect a new governor for the region and a new mayor for Vladivostok.

Nemtsov and other high-ranking officials believe a local feud between Nazdratenko and Viktor Cherepkov, the liberal mayor of Vladivostok, has encouraged Nazdratenko to starve Vladivostok of money and services, and has aggravated the economic crisis in the region.

But Nazdratenko was unfazed by the frontal attack. He accepted the challenge, saying he had nothing personal against early elections. He also did not issue to Yeltsin a formal request to hold the elections--the bureaucratic first step in calling a vote. Instead, with exquisite correctness, he asked his region's parliament to debate holding early elections.

In a vote Tuesday, they decided to ignore the Russian president's wish, say no to early elections and carry on with Nazdratenko until his term ends in December. In a slap to Yeltsin, the parliament ruled that "there was no legal basis for Yeltsin's decision" and said that the region's charter did not allow early elections, Itar-Tass news agency reported.

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Even Cherepkov, an ally of the Kremlin liberals, has denounced as inept the idea of holding early elections, saying the only result would be to elect a more threatening Communist or nationalist governor, "especially as there would be no legal basis for changing things, and [elections] would bring definite legal problems."

Flushed with victory, Nazdratenko has also flouted Yeltsin's order to get the permission of the Moscow envoy Kondratov for all regional spending.

An angry Kondratov told striking teachers in Vladivostok last Friday that the free-wheeling governor had taken a $6-million loan from Moscow and distributed it without saying a word to him. Not a single ruble had gone to pay the workers of Vladivostok, he added.

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