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Siberian Grassroots

Photo blogger Ilya Varlamov speaks during a news conference by the League of Voters in Moscow on January 18.

Photo blogger Ilya Varlamov speaks during a news conference by the League of Voters in Moscow on January 18.

Ilya Varlamov is heading to Omsk.

The popular Moscow-based photo blogger wrote on LiveJournal that he has been invited by the civic organization Citizen-Mayor to compete in online primaries this week to choose a unified opposition candidate for the Siberian city's June 17 mayoral elections.

At first glance, the idea seemed totally absurd. I was only in Omsk once in my whole life. I was born and lived my whole life in Moscow. My family and business are here. Running for mayor would be most atypical. But if I were to win the primary, we would have the most fun and noisy election campaign in the history of mayoral elections in Russia. We would bring issues like the urban environment in Russian cities and transparent governance to a whole new level.

The 26-year-old Varlamov -- who sports an unruly dark blonde afro and is known online by the handle "zyalt" -- would indeed make the Omsk race unconventional.

He has attracted a cult following in recent years blogging about street-level urban issues and has posted a 10-point plan to make Moscow a more livable city. In one recent photo-blogging campaign, for example, he publicly shamed Muscovites who illegally use handicapped parking spaces. He was also a founding member of the League of Voters.

But Varlamov's participation in the race isn't the only thing that makes the Omsk election worth watching. The primaries on April 13-16 run by Citizen-Mayor, an organization that grew out of grassroots election-monitoring efforts, is the latest example of opposition forces and civil society coming of age at the local level.

We saw a hint of this in Yaroslavl's mayoral election, in which a medley of opposition parties including Yabloko, the Communists, and A Just Russia coalesced around maverick city-council deputy Yevgeny Urlashov. The result was a landslide victory over the United Russia-backed candidate.

But the experiment in Omsk takes things to a whole new level. All of the candidates participating in the primaries -- and there are 24 of them -- have signed a pledge to back the winner in this summer's election. Organizers say the primary will boost public interest in the election campaign and serve as a way to introduce the eventual opposition candidate to the public.

“Why shouldn’t we, the active citizens, promote a really independent modern candidate? A person, capable of responsibly representing the interests of all of the city’s social classes -- most of all, the active citizens of Omsk; a person capable of seriously improving the social climate in the region,” Citizen-Mayor activist Viktor Korb told RIA Novosti.

In a test vote conducted on April 10-11, Varlamov led, followed by Oleg Kostarev of the local branch of Yabloko, and Oleg Smolin, a State Duma deputy from the Communists.

United Russia has yet to announce a candidate, but press speculation has centered around current city-council Chairman Vyacheslav Dvorakovsky.

And Omsk should provide fertile ground for an insurgent opposition mayoral campaign. Like in Yaroslavl, United Russia fared poorly in the December 4 State Duma elections there and a significant part of the electorate has soured on the ruling elite.

As I have blogged here and here, the opposition has turned local elections into Russia's new political battleground by focusing on organizing and campaigning on bread-and-butter issues. The main front has shifted from Moscow's district councils to Tolyatti to Yaroslavl, where independent candidates have scored impressive victories.

All eyes are currently on Astrakhan, where opposition figure Oleg Shein has been on a hunger strike for nearly a month to protest alleged vote fraud in that city's March 4 mayoral election.

And starting with this week's primaries and continuing into the summer, Omsk's Siberian grassroots will increasingly become the thing to watch.

-- 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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