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In Russia, a bumpy road to power

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YAROSLAVL, Russia — When an opposition leader named Vladimir Milov wrote on his blog last spring that “the road to the Kremlin goes through Yaroslavl,” it appears he may not have had the pleasure of actually driving here.

The roads are a fright. Yawning potholes, which provoke ferocity among drivers and out of which blows a steady stream of gritty dust until it blurs the street lights, abound.

What Milov had in mind was that if the opposition could win the mayor’s race here, well, then it’s on to Moscow. The opposition did win the race, but it has to get out of the potholes before it can focus on a bigger prize. Mayor Yevgeny Urlashov devotes most of his time to road repair, not to cunning political strategizing.

Yaroslavl is an ancient city on the Volga River, 160 miles northeast of Moscow, and home to astonishing medieval church frescoes and a giant oil refinery. It provides, by Urlashov’s estimate, about 95 percent of the road-tax revenue for the oblast, or regional government, and gets back less than 5 percent. The city has been shortchanged for years, but now that it’s a lonely outpost of opposition politics, there’s no mercy.

When Urlashov won his election in a landslide, the thinking here was that President Putin’s ruling United Russia party — which controls the oblast, the Kremlin, the country — would either crush him or co-opt him. Nearly eight months later, an odd sort of dance has ensued.

The mayor said it took him three or four months simply to get a handle on how to be mayor. He didn’t have a party organization behind him, full of potential appointees. The people he found at City Hall, he said, were time-servers; within the first month, he had fired all 30 department heads and replaced them with newcomers. This shocked and outraged the political class in a city where the normal workings of politics had never been witnessed. The previous mayor had been in office since Soviet times.

Then Urlashov cut most of the subcontractors who were doing city work, because, he said, the level of theft turned out to be much greater than even he, who ran on an anti-corruption platform, had realized. This so infuriated the owners of the affected businesses that they got the city prosecutor to begin a series of audits of municipal departments.

“We are facing a serious fight,” Urlashov said, “but we are confident and calm.”

And it’s a mistake, in any case, to think that the audits are political, said Pyotr Stryakhilev, editor of the city-owned newspaper. It’s just business.

Politics is harder. Urlashov is trying to run a city that is dependent on funds from the oblast and from Moscow, where United Russia holds the purse strings. At the same time, United Russia was so discredited in Yaroslavl — largely because of the handling of a plane crash that killed the city’s hockey team a year ago — that it didn’t run a candidate against him in the mayoral election. (It put its weight behind an independent, who lost badly.)

Urlashov said he can’t afford to go looking for fights, but Stryakhilev said fights have a way of finding him. The mayor made a clumsy attempt to find common ground with United Russia, in a move that annoyed his supporters and put a United Russia member at the head of the city council, following a municipal election in October.

He has two aces up his sleeve. He enjoys wide popular support, and the roads are so bad that even the local United Russia organization has endorsed his repair program. And then there’s what might be considered a jack of diamonds nestled with the aces: The oblast has a new, charisma-challenged governor, appointed by Dmitry Medvedev on one of the last days of his presidency, which means that the governor has practically no political credibility.

The biggest lesson of his victory, and one that could have resonance beyond the city limits, Urlashov said, is that United Russia was kicked out of power and life went on. The city didn’t implode.

He has brought politics to life, said Alexei Yakovlev, a political consultant who worked for the previous mayor.

Urlashov, 44, has been getting by on a few hours of sleep a night and appears to be even thinner than he was when he campaigned earlier this year.

He’ll probably burn out, Yakovlev said. “But after him, nothing will be the way it was before. People have realized it’s possible to achieve something through politics.”

They may even get their streets paved.

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