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Russia protesters take up politics, aiming for city hall

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MOSCOW — With Vladimir Putin freshly elected to a six-year term as president beginning in May and the allure of street demonstrations wearing off, the amorphous opposition movement that arose in December badly needs a sure-footed next step.

One tantalizing destination lies a few blocks from the Kremlin — the Moscow city council, emblematic of Putin’s hold on Russia. His United Russia party occupies 33 of the 35 seats in what’s called the city Duma. He appoints the mayor. But the city’s voters, unlike most in Russia, have turned against him. Fewer than 50 percent voted for Putin, offering a seductive opportunity to his adversaries.

If independent-minded candidates can develop the leadership to get elected here, in Russia’s largest and most influential city, they will be making a move, however small, toward a goal voiced over and over again in the recent protests: creating a representative government that listens to its citizens. Now, Putin rules by fiat, with his loyalists dominating law-making bodies from the largest cities to the smallest villages. He calls it the “vertical of power.” New political faces in Moscow would present a powerful challenge to the system he has so adroitly controlled.

Mikhail Velmakin, a budding politician with dark-blond dreadlocks, thinks the chances are good. A few years ago, while the under-30 generation was being written off as contemptuous of politics, he was learning an underdeveloped art here — how to fight city hall. Now he is using that experience to show others how to capture city hall, his philosophy a mixture of Gandhi (nonviolence) and the legendary Boston politician Tip O’Neill, longtime speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (“All politics is local”).

“There are different approaches to politics,” Velmakin said. “Some believe in rallies, demonstrations, revolution — destroying everything and building it anew. But there are other ways, and I believe in the theory of small deeds — do something every day at the local level, and in that way we can create civil society and influence political development.”

In 2008, at age 26, Velmakin was elected to an unpaid seat on one of Moscow’s 125 neighborhood advisory councils, where he had no real power but acquired a free political education, heavy on constituent service and haggling for votes.

He didn’t realize it then, but he was preparing himself to take protest from the streets into the halls of government. In the fall, when most analysts were betting that a political awakening was years away, he organized a nonpartisan school for deputies, as council members are known.

He recruited political unknowns to run for the neighborhood councils, offering a series of lectures to educate them about the office, guide them through the difficult registration process and teach them how to campaign. Of 230 students, 70 won election March 4.

“Registration is a very complicated, time-consuming and bureaucratic procedure,” he said. “It keeps many people from running. If one comma is missing, you can be denied registration.”

Now Velmakin and others are organizing a nonpartisan Council of District Deputies, providing networking in preparation for elections to the more powerful city Duma in 2014.

Here, says Sergei Parkhomenko, a demonstration organizer, lies Putin’s vulnerable spot.

“We are facing a struggle for Moscow,” he said at a recent news conference. “We need to fight for the city Duma.”

‘Super-citizens’

Velmakin, who teaches political science at the Russian State University for the Humanities, hasn’t decided whether he will run. “I might become a politician,” he said, “but I will never, ever become a government bureaucrat.”

He just turned 30, and on March 4, he was reelected to the council in Otradnoe, a region packed with high-rise apartment buildings about eight miles from the center of Moscow. The area has about 180,000 residents and will soon grow to 210,000 when a new development opens.

He was born there — his parents and grandmother still live nearby — and started organizing while in his early 20s. Otradnoe had a rat problem, and the authorities denied it existed, even after Velmakin and his friends sent them photographs of the rodents. “We got permission to picket next to the metro,” he said. “And we blew up a copy of the letter denying the existence of rats and next to it pasted pictures of the rats. They got rid of the rats.”

Like any canny freshman on a council, he spent his first year watching and refraining from speechmaking, while he figured out how the political games worked. The councils are in charge of youth programs, leisure and sports, but they can only make suggestions to the regional administration.

“I call us ‘super-citizens,’ ” Velmakin said. “I cannot make decisions, but I can go to officials and ask why they made decisions, and I ask as the representative of thousands of people who voted for me.”

When his constituents protested that the city was about to build a parking garage on a much-used soccer field, he complained to the regional administration and investigated the decision-making, concluding that it appeared illegal. But he could get no one to listen.

“There is money in construction, and not everyone is honest,” he said. “It’s a problem all over Moscow, but if we fight, there are results.”

Velmakin made a video of the project and showed it at a council meeting. Then he spent a few days crisscrossing the district to visit the other 17 members of the council in their offices, persuading them to sign a letter to the mayor protesting the parking garage. “Honestly, I did not think many would sign,” Velmakin said. “But in the end, only two refused. I sent the letter to the mayor, and I informed journalists. One day later, the construction stopped.”

Step-by-step progress

Moscow’s 125 districts have 1,550 neighborhood deputies, and by some estimates, about 500 of them are independent or among the opposition, compared with 150 in 2008. Last week, when the newly elected councils met for the first time, the more independent voices were already making noises that sounded like democracy.

About 25 of the councils have a bloc of non-United Russia members, and those blocs insisted that the councils follow the rules and elect their chairmen rather than accept those selected by United Russia. The chairmanship is the only paid job on the councils, and the salary in the largest districts is about $3,300 a month, a good wage here.

“We have to change the system, but gradually, step by step,” said Velmakin, pleased with that sign of progress. “If we try to do it quickly, it will turn out as usual.”

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