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