YAROSLAVL, Russia — Potholes, bus routes, utility bills and school lunches. These are the issues that are driving the mayoral election campaign here — and they are the sort of humdrum concerns that, all over Russia, lie at the heart of the opposition’s strategy for taking on the system of power constructed by Vladimir Putin.
A municipal election in Yaroslavl, a producer of tires, beer and electric motors, wouldn’t normally attract much attention. But a crack has emerged in the Putin-led system, in the form of a crusading anti-graft candidate who rode the winter-long wave of national political protest to become the front-runner here.
“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.
Urlashov resolved years ago to run for mayor, and tried to be a go-along politician. He was even a member of the ruling United Russia party — until September, when he quit the party in very public fashion over its response to a plane crash that killed the members of Yaroslavl’s Lokomotiv hockey team.
That crash looms large in people’s minds. The team was on the plane only because President Dmitry Medvedev had taken over its arena for an international forum. Many here believe that the takeoff was hurried to clear the runway for arriving dignitaries.
Residents’ anger was reflected in the December parliamentary elections, in which United Russia got a lower percentage in Yaroslavl than almost anywhere else. On March 4, Putin did about 10 percentage points worse here than in Russia as a whole.
On that same day, Urlashov led a field of four mayoral candidates with 40 percent of the vote. The second-place finisher, a last-minute contender fielded by the governor amid United Russia’s disarray, got 27 percent. That candidate, Yakov Yakushev, the owner of a paint factory and a number of other properties, now faces Urlashov in a second round.
“The authorities are backing an oligarch,” Urlashov said in an interview, “and I represent something altogether different. It’s the power of crooks and thieves, arrayed against people who lost hope but now are getting some of that hope back again.”
Not everyone, of course, is so starry-eyed. Stanislav Volkov, 34, a colleague on the city council, said: “Yevgeny knows how to warm people up. This is very attractive. But he’s never been a manager. Yakushev is more constructive and doesn’t think in slogans. He is a successful businessman. Very stable. Okay, he’s an oligarch, but we understand who he is.”
Yakushev, not officially running as a United Russia candidate, because as a brand it has become toxic here, ran a highly negative campaign in the first round. (“They disassembled me bone by bone,” Urlashov said.) But the attacks appeared to backfire, giving Urlashov a boost of support, said Pyotr Stryakhilev, a freelance political journalist.
Now the authorities, in something of a panic, are trying to figure out how to handle Urlashov. His supporters fear that they may try to strike him off the ballot. Another approach, says a consultant who has worked for Yakushev and did not wish to be identified, would be to embrace him and try to co-opt him.
“A lot depends on what conclusions Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] drew from the events of the past few months,” said Alexander Sokolov, an analyst at a nonprofit here called the Center for Social Partnership — underscoring the reality that ultimately no politics in Russia is local. Putin will set the tone — accommodate or crack down — and everyone under him will hop to it.
“Russian democracy is still in the Ice Age,” Urlashov said, “and the mastodons are still around.”
The mayoral elections here and in several other cities are a first step. City council elections are upcoming, and most regions will probably be electing governors in the fall. Members of regional legislatures here and elsewhere will be chosen a year from now. Even as Putin settles in for his six-year presidential term, a long political season stretches ahead.
“We don’t know where we’re heading,” Sokolov said, “or what lessons we’ll learn.”