NARYAN MAR, Russia — Today, when this frigid quarter of the Arctic Circle conducts Russia's last direct election for governor, many will heave a sigh of relief.
Incumbent governor Vladimir Butov, who constantly feuded with the oil companies squatting in this town like crows in a sparrow's nest, was criminally charged with abuse of office and assault, disqualified from running for a third term and thrown out of the race. His press secretary was hospitalized after being assaulted by three unidentified men outside her apartment.
Political consultants of uncertain provenance flew in on a small turboprop from Moscow, feeding dark reports of Kremlin intervention, oil company maneuvering, secret cooperation pacts among rival candidates and millions of dollars in campaign funding from unknown sources swirling around town. When voters finally go to the polls today, their choice will be down to two men, both with connections to the oil industry.
As the campaign for governor and parliament draws to a close, the mood in this town of 18,800, seat of the 68,224-square-mile Nenets Autonomous District, is one of confusion and dismay. Many voters were equally contemptuous of the current authorities and the candidates vying to take their place.
"In my opinion, we don't have a right to choose as it is. Whoever we choose, we'll get the same thing. They're both connected to the oil industry," said Vera Artemyeva, the chief economist for the local post office. "As for the government we have now, I don't think they did a good job at all. In fact, I think they failed in every possible way."
The Nenets Autonomous District sprawls along the northern coast of Russia on the White and Barents seas, a cold no-man's-land 1,380 miles north of Moscow that for thousands of years was home only to indigenous Nenets reindeer herders, hunters and trappers.
A sawmill helped launch the town of Naryan Mar beginning in the 1930s, but the region's remoteness -- 480 miles from the nearest railroad station -- kept it largely forgotten. Today it is one of the most sparsely populated areas of Russia, its base of 41,800 residents slowly shrinking each year.
The reason that millions of dollars are being spent on electing a governor here is the 3.6 billion tons of oil and gas reserves discovered under the tundra. Although there has been prospecting there for decades, the area has been targeted only recently for major development and foreign investment. Companies like Russian Lukoil, Conoco-Phillips and Total have just begun the rush in; oil production grew by 45% in 2003, and authorities say they have not even begun to tap the region's hydrocarbon potential.
Almost since being elected in 1996, Butov has been locked in conflict with the oil companies over terms of production-sharing agreements, his demands for additional taxes to be paid to the local treasury and, his opponents say, business disputes involving companies of his own and his associates that were in the periphery of the oil business.
"What we have is a struggle -- a struggle for economic interests. And my opponents managed to arrange the process in such a way that I lost the struggle," Butov said in a recent interview.
By all accounts, the charismatic governor might have handily won a third term had he not been removed from the race in a case he claims was trumped up by political opponents. Unlike some of the 15 candidates who ran in the first electoral round Jan. 23, Butov has lived in Nenets for years.
As the oil money began flowing, Butov nearly doubled pensions, boosted subsidies for farmers and installed computers in schools in the most remote settlements. By the end of his second term, he had increased personal incomes fivefold and created a budget reserve of $53.5 million, and he was openly at war with the oil companies.
But many Nenets residents say the oil bonanza extended no further than the large Lukoil building in Naryan Mar popularly known as "The Bastille." Many homes, even in the capital city, are still without running water, toilets or telephones, while high-paying oil jobs go mainly to outsiders, who are flown in for a few months at a time and housed in tidy new apartment blocks. The local maternity ward has been plagued for years with a staph bacteria problem; the facility can't be disinfected because there is nowhere else to put the mothers and babies.
Even the city's only church, located on prime real estate in the town square, was recently shut down and its priest and parishioners locked out after the elaborate wooden structure was mysteriously transferred to an oil prospecting company -- with reported connections to the governor -- for a fraction of its value.
"When Butov came to power, he promised to turn this place into a United Arab Emirates. He's been around two terms already, and the United Arab Emirates hasn't happened yet," said Yevgeny Tarashenko, a graduate of a vocational institute who has been able to find a job only as a night watchman.