'Winnie the Pooh' is elected mayor of Vladivostok after rival 'trips' on grenade

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The Independent Online

Fresh questions were raised about the health of Russia's body politic yesterday after a convicted criminal nicknamed "Winnie the Pooh" became mayor of the Pacific port city of Vladivostok.

Fresh questions were raised about the health of Russia's body politic yesterday after a convicted criminal nicknamed "Winnie the Pooh" became mayor of the Pacific port city of Vladivostok.

Vladimir Nikolayev, 30, a wealthy businessman with convictions for assault and threatening murder, won the mayoral vote in the notoriously mafia-ridden city in extraordinarily dubious circumstances.

His closest rival, a former Vladivostok mayor called Viktor Cherepkov, 62, "tripped" on a powerful grenade that had been placed outside his office days before last Sunday's crucial vote and remains in hospital.

He suffered concussion, partial loss of speech, a heart attack and temporary deafness. His supporters claimed that he had been targeted for assassination.

In the first round of voting he had come second to Mr Nikolayev, polling 26.3 per cent of the vote against the businessman's 26.8 per cent. Shortly before his "accident" he had appeared on national television and urged voters not to let the citybe taken over by criminal forces.

Mr Nikolayev, who denies involvement in the attack and insists he has no links with the criminal underworld, has a colourful past. In 1999 a court sentenced him to three and a half years in prison for beating a local official and threatening to kill another. He served one and a half years before being released as part of a general amnesty.

Russian media reported yesterday that he had been involved in shoot-outs, dabbled in extortion and had been a key player in Vladivostok's murky criminal underworld where, according to the daily newspaper Izvestia, he was known as "Winnie the Pooh".

The paper published an extract from a legal textbook entitled Organised Crime in the Far East which contained a detailed description of Mr Nikolayev's insalubrious past.

Izvestia said: "For the first time in Russia a man with a criminal past has become head of a major region. He [Nikolayev] is a local figure nicknamed Winnie the Pooh with a criminal record that is studied by local law students in their textbooks."

A plethora of mainstream politicians condemned the election with some urging the Kremlin to annul the results and assume direct control of the region from Moscow.

A deputy in the local parliament representing President Vladimir Putin's party, United Russia, Mr Nikolayev owns some of the region's biggest seafood, meat processing and timber firms. "All these accusations are mud-slinging," he told Kommersant yesterday. "During this campaign we've even had to get the law enforcement authorities to confirm that neither I nor my firm has any links with crime."

The final election, which Mr Nikolayev won with 53 per cent of the vote, was contentious in the extreme. Mr Cherepkov was disqualified from taking part by local officials at the last minute. They said he had "abused his position as an MP" by using his office telephones and fax machines to campaign and had addressed letters to voters on headed parliament note paper.

Two of the remaining five candidates also withdrew, calling the contest "a farce" and urged the voters to spoil their ballot paper by voting "against everyone". About 37 per cent of the city's voters did just that.

Russian media reported widespread "irregularities" yesterday with voters apparently being bribed to vote for Mr Nikolayev with cash, lottery tickets and cheap fish and sausages.

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