Page last updated at 15:03 GMT, Wednesday, 2 September 2009 16:03 UK

'Russia's Obama' defies racists

'Russia's Obama' in election bid

By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC News, Moscow

Some might call him brave, others naive, or even reckless, but the one thing Joachim Crima is not is ordinary. He is black, and he is Russian.

And now this watermelon seller, and former student from Guinea Bissau, is attempting to become the first black man ever to be elected to public office in Russia.

At first people thought I was joking. They asked me if I was doing this to promote my business. But now I am a registered candidate they take me more seriously
Joachim Crima

Mr Crima has become an overnight media sensation here. On the day I visited him in his home town Srednyaya Akhtuba in southern Russia, two other TV crews were with him. The next day two more were due in town.

The country's newspapers have dubbed him Russia's Barack Obama. The implication is that Russians could be ready to elect a black man, even if it is only for a local county council.

Mr Crima's optimism and exuberance are infectious. As I followed him around the local market you could see people warming to him.

Even the dour country folk found it hard to resist his warm smile and open hand as, in lilting Russian, he joked and bantered with the stall holders.

"Good for you," said one tall man leaning against his Lada car "we need new leaders in this place".

Battle ahead

"At first people thought I was joking," Mr Crima told me. "They asked me if I was doing this to promote my business. But now I am a registered candidate they take me more seriously."

A woman walks past graffiti reading "We love you!" with a swastika mocking migrants
A neo-Nazi movement has grown among Russia's disillusioned youth

And he is optimistic that he can win: "There is a chance of winning because I see the way people react to me," he told me.

But to do so Mr Crima has a massive mountain to climb.

In his election slogan "I will work like a negro for Russia" Mr Crima adopts a word commonly used a racial slur.

It is an acknowledgement of what everyone here knows, that racial prejudice in Russia is as common as Ladas are. Some have even joked that his election slogan should be changed to "No we can't".

It was all supposed to be very different. The Soviet Union touted itself as a friend of Africa - hundreds of thousands of African students were encouraged to come here to study, and thousands still do every year.

But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, attitudes to immigrants have soured, and a vicious neo-Nazi movement has grown among Russia's disillusioned youth.

Now Africans living in Russia's big cities, which include refugees fleeing war and economic migrants looking for a better life, live in constant fear of being attacked.


In Moscow I met a Nigerian man who had fallen victim to such an attack.

As he was being examined by an American doctor I could see a series of huge grey scars running down his side and across his back, the result of a brutal knife and gun assault two months ago.

"I was on the phone to my girlfriend when they jumped on me and stabbed me in the back," he told me. "I was stabbed through the side, and then I heard a gunshot and that prompted me to run."

African immigrant displaying his wounds
Being attacked has left this man regretting his decision to go to Russia

He was lucky to be found and taken to hospital, but the attack has left him in deep despair.

"We Africans in Moscow live in fear and pain," he told me. "Coming to Russia was the worst decision of my life... the worst mistake of my life."

Sadly he is not alone. Recent research by the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy suggests nearly 60% of Africans living in Moscow have been physically assaulted.

It is hard to believe, but this is actually an improvement on 10 years ago. Back then the idea of a black man standing for election in Russia would have been unthinkable.

"Sooner or later things will improve in Russia," Mr Crima told me. "I am now a pioneer on this evolutionary path. There will come a time when the racists may even stand before me and say thank you for what I have done."

In the meantime Mr Crima is not taking any chances - as he walks the streets of his home town touting for votes his bodyguard, a huge kick-boxer with vicious looking tattoos on his arms, is never far from his side.

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