“Return the city to the people” is Yevgeny Urlashov’s campaign slogan, and it is resonating not only throughout Yaroslavl, a city of 600,000, but to Moscow and beyond. He’s talking about potholes — but also about corruption and a culture of official arrogance.
The success of Russia’s political system is based on its ability to keep a strong opposition from emerging, barring candidates where necessary and blocking nascent parties. The mayoral race in Yaroslavl, on the Volga River 160 miles northeast of Moscow, will be an early — and potent — test of an effort by Russia’s opposition to turn its attention to local politics in the wake of Putin’s presidential win this month and to gain a beachhead in the political life of the country.
A victory by Urlashov in the April 1 mayoral contest would have tremendous symbolic value, said Alexander Kynev, an expert on regional voting who works for Golos, a Moscow nonprofit group that promotes clean elections. “A success story at the local level will be a very important incentive to the opposition — a motivating factor,” he said.
“The road to the Kremlin goes through Yaroslavl,” Vladimir Milov, a founder of the opposition People’s Freedom Party, wrote on his blog.
Urlashov, 44, is not a fresh, new outsider. He’s an eight-year veteran of the city council who won few friends there but became a vocal critic of municipal fraud and theft, especially after huge sums that were set aside to celebrate the city’s 1,000th anniversary in 2010 seemed to have been spent with very little result.
Now his campaign takes him from one apartment house courtyard to another, because meeting rooms always become suddenly unavailable when he tries to rent one. He’ll stand, hatless, for hours in the biting cold, his face going whiter and his ears redder, while residents crowd around and badger him with questions and complaints about everything from police response times to thieves in city hall to how he’ll get along with the governor if elected. (“Correctly,” Urlashov replied. “He’s not my wife.”)
“I think he’ll win,” said Irina Burova, 58, who came to hear him. “And they’ve never let us elect an honest man before.”
Yaroslavl’s mayor, who is retiring, has been in office since Soviet times, and never groomed a successor. Two generations of potential leaders were shut out of the process, as has happened in different ways throughout the country — up to and including the Kremlin.