Sunday, August 1, 2010

“Russia’s Obama” Redux

You might remember this story from almost a year ago about Joachim Crima, an African immigrant hoping to become Russia’s first black elected official - drawing comparisons to Barack Obama in the process. Crima’s campaign gathered attention from media outlets around the world, in large part because people of African descent (“Afro-Russians”) make up far less than 1% of Russia’s population; he was ultimately a distant also-ran in the election for a seat on a legislative council in the Srednyaya Akhtuba District outside the southern Russian city of Volgograd. But quietly last month Jean Gregoire Sagbo, succeeded where Crima failed, winning a seat on the municipal council in Novozavidovo, a small industrial town about 60 miles north of Moscow.

Like many Afro-Russians, Sagbo originally went to Russia from his native Benin for an education in Russia’s state-run university system. He met and married a Russian woman and decided to settle down in her hometown of Novozavidovo. Sagbo became active in the community, organizing civic improvement projects before deciding to run for the local council; his platform included pledges to tackle the town’s problem with rampant drug addiction among its young people and to finish a long-delayed project to link all of the town’s residences into a central heating grid.

In some ways his story parallels that of Crima, though Sagbo would prefer to downplay the similarities, especially the Obama comparisons. “It’s sensationalism,” he was quoted as saying in Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “He is black and I am black, but it’s a totally different situation.” In fact the stories are quite different when it comes race – Crima had a difficult time overcoming the issue of race in his campaign, and the feeling that he was more of a sideshow than a serious candidate. Crima didn’t help matters with his campaign slogan, a promise to “work like a negro for Russia”, which used a cruder term still than “negro” and was meant to imply someone who would work hard. By contrast, race seemed to be a small issue for Sagbo, who has been long embraced by the residents of Novozavidovo as one of their own. The locals were happy to see someone run for office, they said, who wasn’t a “criminal”. “We don’t care about his race,” said one Novozavidovo resident, “we consider him one of us.”

Sagbo has a tough job ahead of him. The town was hit hard when its local factory was privatized years ago, while heat and water supplies to many homes in the town remain spotty at best and the city’s last elected mayor was killed two years ago by unknown gunmen. We wish Jean Gregoire Sagbo much better luck.
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