Rus­sian politician’s race, hon­esty make him rar­ity

Man seeks to clean up town where he has lived for 21 years

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Kristina Narizh­naya

NOVOZA­VI­DOVO, Rus­sia — Peo­ple in this Rus­sian town used to stare at Jean Gre­goire Sagbo be­cause they had never seen a black man. Now they say they see in him some­thing equally rare — an hon­est politician.

Sagbo last month be­came the first black to be elected to of­fice in Rus­sia.

In a coun­try where racism is en­trenched and of­ten vi­o­lent, Sagbo’s elec­tion as one of Novoza­vi­dovo’s 10 mu­nic­i­pal coun­cilors is a mile­stone. But among the town’s 10,000 peo­ple, the 48-year-old from the West African coun­try of Benin is viewed sim­ply as a Rus­sian who cares about his home­town.

He prom­ises to re­vive the im­pov­er­ished, garbage-strewn town where he has lived for 21 years and raised a fam­ily. His plans in­clude re­duc­ing ram­pant drug ad­dic­tion, clean­ing up a pol­luted lake and de­liv­er­ing heat­ing to homes.

“Novoza­vi­dovo is dy­ing,” Sagbo said in an in­ter­view in the ramshackle mu­nic­i­pal build­ing. “This is my home, my town. We can’t live like this.”

“His skin is black, but he is Rus­sian in­side,” Mayor Vy­ach­eslav Arakelov said. “The way he cares about this place, only a Rus­sian can care.”

Sagbo isn’t the first black in Rus­sian pol­i­tics. An­other West African, Joaquin Crima of Guinea-Bis­sau, ran for head of a south­ern Rus­sian district a year ago but was heav­ily de­feated.

Crima was dubbed by the me­dia “Rus­sia’s Obama.” Now they’ve shifted the ti­tle to Sagbo, much to his an­noy­ance.

“My name is not Obama. It’s sen­sa­tion­al­ism,” he said. “He is black, and I am black, but it’s a to­tally dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion.”

In­spired by com­mu­nist ide­ol­ogy, Sagbo came to Soviet Rus­sia in 1982 to study eco­nom­ics in Moscow. There he met his wife, a Novoza­vi­dovo na­tive. He moved to the town about 65 miles north of Moscow in 1989 to be close to his in-laws.

To­day he is a fa­ther of two and ne­go­ti­ates real es­tate sales for a Moscow con­glom­er­ate. His coun­cil job is un­paid.

Sagbo says nei­ther he nor his wife wanted him to get into pol­i­tics, view­ing it as a dirty, dan­ger­ous busi­ness, but the town coun­cil and res­i­dents per­suaded him to run.

They al­ready knew him as a man of strong civic im­pulse. He had cleaned the en­trance to his apart­ment build­ing, planted flow­ers and spent his own money on street im­prove­ments. Ten years ago, he or­ga­nized vol­un­teers and started what be­came an an­nual day of col­lect­ing garbage.

He said he feels no racism in the town. “I am one of them. I am home here,” Sagbo said.

He felt that dur­ing his first year in the town, when his 4-year-old son Maxim came home in tears, say­ing a teenage boy spat at him. Sagbo ran out­side in a rage, de­mand­ing that the spit­ter ex­plain him­self. Women sit­ting nearby also be­rated the teenager. Then the whole street joined in.

Rus­sia’s black pop­u­la­tion hasn’t been of­fi­cially counted, but some stud­ies es­ti­mate about 40,000 “Afro-Rus­sians.” Many are at­tracted by uni­ver­si­ties that are less costly than those in the West.

Scores of them suf­fer racially mo­ti­vated attacks ev­ery year — 49 in Moscow alone in 2009, ac­cord­ing to the Moscow Protes­tant Chap­laincy Task Force on Racial Vi­o­lence and Ha­rass­ment, an ad­vo­cacy group.

Af­ter the Soviet Union col­lapsed, Novoza­vi­dovo’s in­dus­tries were rapidly pri­va­tized, leav­ing it in fi­nan­cial ruin.

High un­em­ploy­ment, cor­rup­tion, al­co­holism and pol­lu­tion blight what was once an idyl­lic town, just a short dis­tance from the Zavi­dovo Na­tional Park, where Prime Min­is­ter Vladimir Putin and Pres­i­dent Dmitry Medvedev take na­ture re­treats.

De­nis Voronin, a 33-yearold en­gi­neer in Novoza­vi­dovo, said Sagbo was the town’s first politician to get elected fairly, with­out re­sort­ing to buy­ing votes

“Pre­vi­ous politi­cians were all crim­i­nals,” he said.

A for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tion head — the equiv­a­lent of mayor in ru­ral Rus­sia — was shot to death by un­known as­sailants two years ago.

The post is now held by Arakelov, a vet­eran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan who says he also wants to clean up cor­rup­tion. He says money used to con­stantly dis­ap­pear from the town bud­get.

As a coun­cilor, Sagbo has al­ready scored some suc­cesses. He mo­bi­lized res­i­dents to col­lect money and turn di­lap­i­dated lots be­tween build­ings into col­or­ful play­grounds with new swings and painted fences.

As he strolled around his neigh­bor­hood, ev­ery­one greeted him and he re­sponded in his flu­ent, French-Africanac­cented Rus­sian.

Sit­ting in the newly painted play­ground with her son, Irina Danilenko said it was the only im­prove­ment she has seen in her five years here.

“We don’t care about his race,” Danilenko, 31, said. “We con­sider him one of us.”

Sergey Pono­marev

Jean Gre­goire Sagbo made his­tory in Rus­sia when he was elected as a mu­nic­i­pal coun­cilor, but res­i­dents say his hon­esty and com­mit­ment are more im­por­tant than his race.

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