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Afro-Sporting Blogger Invades Omsk

Photo blogger Ilya Varlamov (right) on the platform of Moscow's Leningradsky train station in October 2011

Photo blogger Ilya Varlamov (right) on the platform of Moscow's Leningradsky train station in October 2011

As a 28-year-old Muscovite with a wild afro, Ilya Varlamov will probably have a tough time getting himself elected mayor of Omsk -- although stranger things have certainly happened. But depending upon what kind of campaigner Varlamov turns out to be, his candidacy could turn out to be groundbreaking.

In one way, it already is.

The popular photo blogger and civic activist won an opposition primary for the Siberian city's mayoral election with 42 percent of the vote. In the online primary, the first of its kind in Russia, he bested popular local figures like Oleg Kostarev of the local branch of Yabloko, and Oleg Smolin, a State Duma deputy from the Communists.

Today, he flew to Omsk to register with the local election commission and his campaign is starting to gather the 10,000 signatures necessary to get on the ballot for the June 17 election.

Varlamov was initially a reluctant candidate. As I blogged last week, when Citizen-Mayor, a local NGO that grew out of grassroots election-monitoring efforts, asked him to compete in the primary, he was resistant. But ultimately he couldn't resist the opportunity to "bring issues like the urban environment in Russian cities and transparent governance to a whole new level."

Varlamov's platform, a classic green-cities program centered on improving the urban environment -- everything from bike paths to better handicapped access to free public transportation subsidized by fees on drivers -- is one way his campaign could break new ground.

Varlamov has earned a nationwide cult following blogging about these issues. Just having them aired in Russia in a high-profile campaign that is bound to attract a lot of media attention would be revolutionary.

Another area where Varlamov's campaign could have an impact -- win or lose -- could be with fund-raising. He plans to raise most of the necessary campaign cash through small-scale donations from ordinary residents. This tactic, which enables a candidate to build up grassroots support while fund-raising at the same time, is risky in Russia. But if it is even moderately successful, Varlamov's campaign could serve as a model for future insurgent candidates.

And Varlamov won't be flying solo in his efforts. He can count on the Citizen-Mayor group to assist with signature gathering, fund-raising, and recruiting volunteers. He will also be able to count on some big national names to pitch in, including anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, the designer Artyem Lebedev, and socialite-turned-social-activist Ksenia Sobchak.

It is unclear who Varlamov's opponents will be this summer. United Russia is widely expected to put forth Omsk's current City Council Chairman Vyacheslav Dvorakovsky. And after embarrassments in local elections in Tolyatti and Yaroslavl, the authorities can be expected to pull out all the stops to win in Omsk.

But the city also provides fertile ground for an opposition win. The local elite is so divided that some local commentators say they may back two different candidates. Moreover, United Russia -- which won just 27.5 percent of the vote in December's State Duma elections -- is deeply unpopular.

"This campaign could become United Russia's latest headache," wrote.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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