“An anti-corruption crusader has won a landslide victory in a mayoral election in a major Russian city, dealing a painful blow to the powerful pro-Kremlin party and energizing the beleaguered opposition,” AP reports:
Yevgeny Urlashov (left) won 70 percent of Sunday’s vote in Yaroslavl, a city of about 590,000 some 250 kilometers (150 miles) east of Moscow, easily defeating the acting mayor, who was the candidate of president-elect Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.
“This is an especially important result considering the downbeat mood the opposition was in after the elections,” said Carnegie Moscow Centre analyst Nikolai Petrov.
Urlashov’s triumph confirms growing public resentment of endemic official corruption and should help restore momentum to the democratic opposition which faced a strategic impasse when mass protests tailed off following Vladimir Putin’s presidential election victory.
“People have grown tired of corruption and nepotism, they want changes,” Urlashov told Ekho Moskvy radio today.
He resigned from United Russia last year after rejecting Kremlin demands that he retract criticism of the government’s response to the September plane crash in which Yaroslavl’s celebrated ice hockey team were killed.
“Urlashov said his foes distributed fake extremist campaign material in his name and paid provocateurs to disrupt his meetings with voters,” The Wall Street Journal reports:
Police raided his campaign office Friday, checking financial records. A local television station’s editor was fired after giving Mr. Urlashov air time.
Alexander Sokolov, an independent analyst at the city’s Center for Social Partnership, said the pressures created a voter backlash in favor of Mr. Urlashov. Even his celebrating supporters were surprised by his margin of victory.
“Urlashov’s victory is our victory,” said the Solidarity movement’s Boris Nemtsov and retired chess king Garry Kasparov, while Golos – the election monitoring NGO evicted from its Moscow offices since exposing widespread violations in December’s Duma poll – said the Yarovlavl vote “was conducted in accordance with the law.”
In the wake of recent opposition gains in Tolyatti, Urlashov’s victory is indicative of a growing trend, says Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center.
“This is quite a list,” she tells RFE/RL. “At least two of these places are fairly large. Tolyatti and Yaroslavl are big enough cities.
“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.”
Analysts suggest that the Yaroslavl poll may fulfill democracy activists’ hopes and serve as a model for opposition unity that will also encourage other further defections from United Russia.
“It’s a precedent,” says Carnegie’s Petrov, a specialist in regional politics. “It was a success story which is very important for the protest movement because after the presidential elections took place, it looked like there was nothing more to deal with until the next [presidential] elections. Now it looks like municipal elections will play the role of an engine, which will push forward political modernization.”
The Yaroslavl election confirmed that the opposition’s civic activism is shifting its focus from the politics of protest to building organizations, contesting elections and connecting with average voters’ needs and concerns, said Mikhail Prokhorov, the former Kremlin insider who contested March’s presidential poll
“Protest activities now involve concrete issues: election monitoring, creation of parties and movements, conducting civic initiatives that change our lives,” he said. “And this is only the beginning.”
Urlashov’s win is another blow to the ruling party, which lags way behind its architect in terms of popularity and electability.
“That was another bell ring for United Russia,” said independent analyst Valery Khomyakov. “It wasn’t the first, and certainly not the last one.”
The Yaroslavl was a positive indicator that the politically diverse opposition could co-operate and unite around a single candidate, said Sergei Mitrokhin (right), leader of the liberal Yabloko party.
“For the opposition of course it’s a positive sign that it is possible in the current situation to win elections against the authorities,” he says. “Of course, we have to give more attention to mayoral elections in big cities.”
The Center for Social Partnership and Golos are grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance NGO.