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Russia Elects First African

Roland Marke, October 7, 2010

Jean Gregoire Sagbo

Jean Gregoire Sagbo is Russia's newly elected councilman of Novozavidovo, a rural community about 65 miles north of Moscow. Residents in this seemingly sleepy town would stare at him because they had never seen a black man before. But presently, they have spotted in him a quality equally rare in this locale—an honest politician. Sagbo is the country's first black elected official, from the tiny West African nation of Benin.

Russia is still entrenched in the enigma of racism and plagued with systemic violence. Sagbo's election is a milestone in the country's history, emerging as one of the 10 elected municipal councilors. Among the 10,000 residents here, 48-year-old Sagbo, though an immigrant from Benin, is perceived as a Russian who cares about his adopted hometown. He has promised to jumpstart the impoverished, garbage-littered town, where he has lived for 21 years and raised a family. His long-term vision includes addressing the malaise of drug addiction, cleaning up an eyesore-carved polluted lake and delivering heating service to deprived homes.

Sagbo proved himself as a man of strong civic impulse who had cleaned the entrance to his apartment building, planted flowers and spent his own money on street improvements. About 10 years ago he organized volunteers and pioneered what would become an annual day of collecting garbage, literally cleaning up the streets.

Russia's black population hasn't been officially enumerated, but studies estimate there are about 40,000 "Afro-Russians." Many are attracted by universities that are less costly than 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.

"His skin is black but he is Russian inside," said Vyacheslav Arakelov, the mayor. "The way he cares about this place, only a Russian can care."

Sagbo is not the first Black Russian politician; he's just the first to win. 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."

When the Soviet Union collapsed, this town's industries were privatized, leaving the town in financial ruin. It suffered from massive unemployment, corruption, alcohol abuse and pollution. It was previously a prosperous place, not very far from the National Park, where Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev enjoy nature retreats.

Denis Voronin, a 33-year-old engineer, said Sagbo was the town's first politician to get elected fairly, without resorting to buying votes. "Previous politicians were all criminals," he said.

Residents complain that they pay for heat and hot water, but because of ineffective management within the municipality they don't get much of either. The toilet in the municipal building is a room with a hole in the floor.

"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."

He is gaining some successes. He mobilized residents to raise money and turn dilapidated lots between buildings into colorful playgrounds with new swings and painted fences. When he walks around his neighborhood, he's greeted with handshakes and infectious smiles, and he responds in his fluent, French-African-twanged Russian. Boys wave to him, as if they're reminding him that he promised them a soccer field.

The residents welcome his presence and appreciate what he's doing. "We don't care about his race," said Danilenko. "We consider him one of us."

People around the world are curiously asking, is this really happening in Russia, once an incubator of racism and still a somewhat insular society? But times are changing rapidly, and people around the world, whatever their ethnicity, have similar basic needs for freedom, justice and equality. As Sagbo said, "I am one of them. I am home here."

Roland B. Marke is a published author, poet, songwriter, and activist for the voiceless and underprivileged around the world, whose deep root is from Sierra Leone, West Africa. His short stories and poems have been anthologized. His website is www.rolandmarke.com.

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