The only opposition mayor of a major Russian city has been arrested for allegedly soliciting bribes.
Russian Interior Ministry spokesman Andrei Pilipchuk told journalists on July 3 that Yevgeny Urlashov, the mayor of Yaroslavl, a city 250 kilometers east of Moscow, and three of his deputies were arrested for allegedly demanding a bribe of 14 million rubles ($420,000) from an unidentified contractor.
Footage of police in masks, camouflage, and bulletproof vests raiding Urlashov's apartment led Russian state television news. Police said they found $500,000 in cash belonging to Urlashov in his neighbor's house and $200,000 in the apartment belonging to Urlashov's press secretary.
Urlashov denied the charges to Russian journalists before being driven to the police station.
"All year long they have been trying to incriminate me with something -- some smoking gun or a bribe attempt. Now they are accusing me of refusing to accept faulty road maintenance," Urlashov said. "I have promised to fight against it and this is exactly what I am doing. They, however, are working hard to remove me from the position of the city mayor. Once they had failed to achieve that through two negative evaluations of my job [by the city council], they resorted to such [police] operations."
Urlashov defected from the ruling United Russia party in 2011 to join a protest movement that mounted the biggest opposition rallies against President Vladimir Putin's 13 years in power. Urlashov's landslide election victory in Yaroslavl in April 2012, as an independent candidate, underscored discontent with Putin's ruling elite.
Vladimir Zubkov, the head of the Yaroslavl branch of the liberal Yabloko party, said to RFE/RL that the situation around Urlashov may damage opposition's image in the region and beyond.
"The case is going to be very loud and resonant. I think unfortunately [the arrest] will have a bad effect on the opposition in general; it will evoke mistrust if the evidence is weighty," Zubkov said. "[That goes] not only for Yaroslavl but even further afield. The central issue is that this is a person who has come under the banner of honesty and the battle against thieves and swindlers. God forbid that he turns out to not be honest in something. It would undermine trust towards all leaders of the opposition. That is the worst part about this for us."
Zubkov added that citizens of Yaroslavl will be negatively affected by Urlashov's arrest.
"For Yaroslavl and its people, it is bad either way," Zubkov said. "If Urlashov is guilty, it's bad because people will be disillusioned with the opposition. If he's innocent, then it's also bad because it will show that the authorities are using not fully appropriate methods that are outside politics."
Urlashov intended to head the regional list of the Civil Platform party of billionaire-turned-politician Mikhail Prokhorov in the upcoming election to the legislative assembly of the Yaroslavl region in September.
Prokhorov's spokeswoman Tatyana Kosobokova told journalists on July 3 that Prokhorov plans to travel to Yaroslavl on July 7 to support Urlashov.
Kosobokova told RFE/RL that Prokhorov considers Urlashov’s arrest an attempt to scare independent politicians and ordinary citizens.
"Mikhail Prokhorov has issued a statement saying he believes that the demonstrative capture of [Mayor Urlashov] is a blow against the civil rights and liberties of every Russian citizen."
Kosobokova added that Prokhorov’s party considers Urlashov's arrest politically motivated.
"It is absolutely clear that the late-night show with masked men dragging [Urlashov] out of his car was staged with the sole purpose of intimidating him personally as well as his voters, with whom he planned to work starting next week because the party intended to nominate Yevgeny and his allies for Yaroslavl Oblast's regional legislature," the spokeswoman said.
Moscow-based political observer Aleksandr Kynev also said the case is politically motivated, suggesting that all independent politicians in Russia end up in a similar way if they refuse to join ruling United Russia party.
"Those mayors who were elected against the will of the authorities, as a rule, have two possible ways for their careers. The first variant is they join the ruling party. That what happened, for instance, in Irkutsk [Siberia] with the mayor who was elected from the Communist party. The second variant is leaving the post, most often with launching of a criminal case, which usually falls apart later after it turns out that it was fabricated."
Based on reporting by AFP, Interfax, RIA-Novosti, Izvestia, Interfax, and RFE/RL correspondent Tom Balmforth