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Analysis & Opinion
03.04.12 From The Ground Up
By Andrew Roth

In Yaroslavl, a city of more than half a million about 150 miles outside Moscow, an independent candidate for mayor dominated the Kremlin-backed competition in Sunday’s runoff elections, winning 70 percent of the vote. Yevgeny Urlashov, an eight-year veteran of Yaroslavl’s city council, ran on an anticorruption platform with support from a broad spectrum of Russian opposition parties. Experts noted that Urlashov’s win highlights two growing trends in Russia: modest victories for the opposition in elections in the regions, and a critical loss of trust in the ruling United Russia party.

Even before Sunday’s election results came in, there was a sense that Urlashov’s campaign had found the critical momentum needed to carry him to victory. Local opposition parties, including the communists, A Just Russia and Yabloko, had united together behind the former United Russia city councilor. More than 1,000 election monitors traveled to Yaroslavl from Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and other cities to prevent ballot stuffing and other voter fraud – a sign of the growing political activism among rank-and-file Russians.

“The road to the Kremlin goes through Yaroslavl,” wrote Democratic Choice movement leader Vladimir Milov in a blog post before the election. As opposition protests in Moscow ran out of steam last month, a campaign for civic participation gradually took its place, with opposition leaders such as Boris Akunin saying “the civic movement has entered a new phase. The first phase, romantic and euphoric, is over,” Russia media reported. He argued that the opposition should gather power from the ground up.

Opposition forces have scored some modest victories in recent local and municipal elections. On March 4th, as Putin was securing his return to the presidency, several young, opposition-minded candidates supported by the Our City initiative won seats as city councilors in Moscow. Several weeks later, United Russia candidates lost in remote but high-profile mayoral races in several Russian cities, including Tolyatti, the home of Russia’s AvtoVAZ car maker and a recipient of Kremlin largesse. Despite billions in bailout funds to the carmaker, Sergei Andreyev, an independent candidate, won 56 percent of a vote seen as a referendum against the ruling party.

Yaroslavl, too, had been shaken in recent months after the loss of its Lokomotiv hockey team in a tragic airliner crash in September. While local investigators said pilot error was behind the disaster, Urlashov told reporters that he disagreed, quitting United Russia in the process. By the time of December’s parliamentary vote, anti-United Russia sentiment was at its peak in Yaroslavl: United Russia won only 29 percent of the vote there, the party’s worst showing in any of Russia’s 83 regions.

In an interview with Izvestia, Urlashov said his opponent, current mayor Yakov Yakushev, had run a dirty campaign that had included fraud, in what he called an “attempt to seize power.” Nonetheless, he said the results of the election were “only unexpected for someone who doesn’t live in Yaroslavl. For those who know the city’s problems, this victory could have been expected.”

United Russia has increasingly become associated with the “party of crooks and thieves” moniker assigned to it by corruption whistleblower and opposition darling Alexei Navalny. Some party members have already announced it would be rebranding its image, a fact which political expert Alexei Mukhin said was absolutely essential to have success in future elections. “It seems to me that for United Russia to at least somewhat solve its political problems on the regional level on the eve of local elections in 2012, it is necessary for the party to change its name, conduct a deep, internal rebranding, and change its leadership,” he said.

Masha Lipman, an analyst at Moscow’s Carnegie Center, told RFE/RL that the losses in mayoral elections in two large cities, Yaroslavl and Tolyatti, was the beginning of a trend in Russia’s regional politics. “The trend is defiance [against] and resentment of pro-government forces, especially United Russia and [also] much less acquiescence vis-a-vis attempts by the government to abuse its authority and rig elections," she said.

Sergei Neverov, the head of United Russia’s general council, said yesterday that Yaroslavl residents would “regret their decision” in the mayoral elections. Yet, as Mukhin noted, the ruling party itself needed to pick new faces from the professional classes in the regions in order to stave off future losses in local, or even federal, elections. “[United Russia] should seek out, find, and nominate perspective politicians not only from the United Russia team as it is called, but must address the wider spectrum of professionals, owners and social workers.”

Urlashov will have his work cut out for him. Local politics in Yaroslavl’s city council are dominated by United Russia, and the regional governor supported Urlashov’s opponent in the election. Urlashov has flatly rejected returning to United Russia in order to garner political support among local politicians, but told Izvestia he was ready to work with local politicians as “institutions of government.” “When [the governor] met with me, he said that in the case of any results in the elections he would work with the victor… These are institutions of government and I will work with them in a businesslike manner, fruitfully and constructively,” he said.
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