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Russia's Obama: No, He Can't, At Least Not Now

An African-born farmer is making an improbable run for office in Russia, inspired by President Barack Obama and undaunted by racial attitudes that have changed little in decades.

Joaquim Crima, a 37-year-old native of Guinea Bissau who settled in southern Russia after earning a degree at a local university, is promising to battle corruption and bring development to his district on the Volga River.

In Russia, a black man running for office is so unusual that Crima is being called "the Russian Obama."

"I like Obama as a person and as a politician because he proved to the world what everyone thought was impossible. I think I can learn some things from him," Crima said, sitting on his shady verandah in this town of 11,000, where he lives with his wife Anait, their 10-year-old son and an extended clan of ethnic Armenian relatives.

In truth, Crima's quest to become head of the Srednyaya Akhtuba district is highly unlikely, not least because he lacks the political capital and connections to make it happen. He faces the reality of being a black man in Russia, a country where racism and racial stereotypes are deeply ingrained.

"They are often taunted on the metro and in the market,'" said Lydia Troncale of the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy, a nonprofit organization that works with African immigrants.

Crima gets along well with his fellow townspeople, but to play it safe he is accompanied almost everywhere by his muscular brother-in-law.

Last December, a black American exchange student was stabbed and badly wounded in Volgograd, the nearest large city, in what was believed to be a racially motivated attack.

Crima, who came to Russia in 1989 and holds a degree from Volgograd State Pedagogical University, believes he has what it takes to fix problems in his district, where some residents still lack potable water and use outhouses. Unpaved streets, where goats graze, turn to mud after a rain.

About 55,000 people live in the district's 18 villages and towns.

"The current district head has been in power for 10 years, but he hasn't done anything for people here," said Crima. "There are young families that need housing, who need opportunities. This town and Russia are ready for a change."

Crima wanted to come to the Soviet Union because it supported his West African homeland when it gained independence in 1974. He describes Russia as a "great power" and admires Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He married a local woman, learned to speak fluent Russian and earned his citizenship.

He farms 50 acres (20 hectares) of land, growing watermelons and other melons, which he and his wife sell along the town's main road. He employs about 20 people to help.

But for many of Crima's neighbors, that's not enough.

"He hasn't lived all of our issues and he didn't grow up around us; he's not a kolkhoznik," said produce vendor Vladimir Kachenko, using the term for people who work on collective farms. "If I need help building a house, he can't help me get the required permits because he hasn't gone through it himself."

Still, many in town admire Crima's audacity. When he walks down the street in a crisp white shirt and tie, residents shake his hand and congratulate him on his decision to run.

"I haven't heard his platform, but he's a nice person," said Dennis Duma, 27. "I would change my party affiliation for him."

Privately, however, some laugh at what they see as Crima's naivety. A department store saleswoman who refused to give her name said she would not vote for him because she doesn't want to "live in Africa." Another said she would not vote for a Negro.

In Russia, such baldly racist sentiments are common. Crima himself put up billboards that read: "I will toil like a Negro" — a phrase Russians use to mean they will work hard.

The billboards were up for only a couple of days before being replaced by ads for the main pro-Kremlin party's candidate, Yuri Khrustov, a former teacher.

Crima is a member of Russia's main party, United Russia, but is running in the Oct. 11 election as an independent. There are five other candidates.

His candidacy is part of a standard tactic in Russia used to draw the protest vote and allow people to vent frustration while posing no threat to the government's favored candidate, said Anna Stepnova, editor of Delovoye Povolzhye, a newspaper in Volgograd.

Crima's campaign manager, Vladimir Kritsky, acknowledged that a victory for his client was close to impossible, but said the Kremlin has promised Crima a seat on the district council in 2011.

"He will be able to do a lot of good for the region," said Kritsky, a 33-year-old former special operations commander. "He's a very smart guy, he speaks five languages ... this is an experiment that the Kremlin will be interested in supporting."

There is deep dissatisfaction with the current head of the Srednyaya Akhtuba district, who locals say sold a lot of land to out-of-towners while purchasing a large villa and a plane for himself. The incumbent is not running for re-election.

Despite that, many in Srednyaya Akhtuba see no point in voting in elections they say are already predetermined.

"I've lost hope in our system and our people," said Taisya Kirilova, 64. "He can want to change things, but alone, he can't accomplish anything."

Crima shrugs off voters' cynicism.

"If local residents want a change, they need to vote for it," Crima said. "Plus, I like surprising people."


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