Guinea-Bissau Native Runs For Office In Russia

By Anna Smolchenko

Agence France Presse
July 22 2009

MOSCOW — For Joaquim Crima, the stark divisions that frequently define
politics in Russia may not be as black and white as most believe.

The 37-year-old native of Guinea-Bissau, shrugging off deep-seated
prejudice in a society where the rare sight of a black man turns
heads, says he will run for public office in the small central Russian
village where he lives.

And in the process, Crima, who has acquired Russian citizenship,
will put his adopted country’s claims to being a modern, colour-blind
democracy to the kind of test that it is, well, just not too accustomed
to facing.

"I have a chance to change some things for the better and I have an
obligation to do so," he said, pointing to the dire state of roads
and drinking water in the village of Srednyaya Akhtuba where he lives.

"If this is a democracy, then why should I withdraw?" Crima asked,
talking to AFP in a telephone interview.

"Let the people decide!"

Those people are already getting an eyeful of the choice they could
face when they go to the polls on October 11 to elect a new chief
for a district in the Volgograd region.

A billboard shows a white-shirted, necktie-sporting Crima — he
has adopted the Russian name Vasily Ivanovich — standing beside
a winding river, the words "Vasily Crima — New District Chief"
emblazoned across the side and bottom.

Local election officials however say Crima, who hails from the city
of Bolama in the former Portuguese colony, faces an uphill battle
just to be taken seriously in Russia.

"There is an impression that he is laughing at himself, saying ‘I am
a Russian Obama’," Viktor Sapozhnikov, chief of the district election
commission, said.

If he goes through with his plan to run for office, said Sapozhnikov,
voters would cast ballots for him either "for the sake of a joke"
or as an act of protest against Russia’s moribund political life.

Crima, who speaks calmly and intelligently, is reluctant to compare
himself too closely to Barack Obama, the first black US president and
one with roots in Africa, but he says there are relevant parallels
in their situations.

"This process has already started," he says, referring specifically
to the ascendency of black politicians in societies long governed by
white men.

"Sooner or later Russia will be ready."

Crima, who lives with his Armenian wife and their nine-year-old son,
first came to Russia in the waning days of the Soviet Union, studying
to become a teacher at a university in Volgograd.

He speaks Russian with an easy fluency, but despite his educated
background currently earns a living selling watermelons grown and
supplied by his father-in-law.

Though there are several Russians of African origin who are well known
in contemporary and historical Russia — Russia’s most beloved poet,
Alexander Pushkin, had African ancestry — few, if any, have been
elected to any office.

Despite the political odds, and the ever-present threat of
racially-motivated violence directed against him, Crima says he is
not intimidated.

The populist tabloid Tvoi Den, one of the few newspapers to write about
Crima’s political plans, quoted him as saying with intentional irony
that he "will slave like a negro" for the benefit of his constituents
if elected.

Crima told AFP he was not uncomfortable using this racial stereotype.

"If Russians are accustomed to calling dark-skinned people ‘negroes’
then so be it. I am not in the least bit offended because you have
to be proud of who you are."

Registration for candidates in the Srednyaya Akhtuba district election
begins Saturday.