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13 Aug, 2009 19:59

Russia’s answer to Obama

An African-born is putting himself forward to become a district chief in Southern Russia. If he's successful, he'll be the first black man to be elected to public office in the country.

Joaquim, or Vasily Ivanovich, Crima has lived in Russia for twenty years. He makes a living by growing and selling watermelons in a small town in Russia’s Volgograd region, just like many others in the area.

A fruit market is where Crima, a 37-year-old native of the tiny African nation of Guinea-Bissau, took his first steps as a politician. His message is simple and somewhat familiar.

“If you want change, I can bring change. Together we can make it happen,” Crima says.

Through selling his fruit, he came to understand the minds of people in the street and ways to help them.

“If you’re good at business, you’ll be good at politics too. When I first came to this town more than a decade ago, I was an alien for everyone. A black alien; very exotic to the locals. But then I showed them how I can work and they accepted me,” he adds.

The head of the region’s electoral commission, Gennady Shaikhulin, says the image of a man who works hard, doesn’t steal and doesn’t drink makes Vasily a respectable candidate among the locals.

“Many of my friends buy watermelons from him. I heard he has a good sense of humor, and the most popular fruit tent in the town. He’s got a good chance to win there,” Shaikhulin admits.

People here say Vasily has been more successful than anyone else in selling watermelons, because he’s somewhat exotic to Russians and he has an easy-talking manner, but is it enough to translate his success from the market to the town hall?

Vasily says it was society’s racist attitudes that stopped him from pursuing a legal career. He shows me his degrees in biochemistry and law.

“Can you imagine a Russian taking advice from a black law consultant? Well, that’s too complicated. I sell watermelons to make ends meet and feed my family,” Crima jokes.

Inspired by Obama’s victory, Vasily says he wants to be the man to make a similar breakthrough in Russia. If elected, he would become the first black man ever to hold public office in Russia.

“I have a multicultural family. My wife is of Armenian origin. Russia has brought us together. And we are Russians, and I can’t be indifferent to its future,” Crima promises.

While the idea of a seller from an obscure part of Africa running for office in regional Russia may raise a few eyebrows, for many he is like a breath of fresh air.