MOSCOW -- Was opposition candidate Yevgeny Urlashov's impressive win in Yaroslavl's mayoral election an exception? Or was it the latest sign of a groundswell of anti-Kremlin sentiment in the regions?
Urlashov didn't just win on April 1. He crushed his United Russia-supported opponent, local oligarch Yakob Yakushev, in a landslide -- taking nearly 70 percent of the vote. And he did so even as the local elite marshaled all the administrative, media, and law-enforcement resources at their disposal against him.
The electoral uprising in Yaroslavl came on the heels of a string of victories for opposition candidates in the regions, including mayoral elections in the automaking city of Tolyatti and in the town of Chernogolovka in the Moscow Oblast.
And on March 2, city council elections in the remote North Caucasus town of Lermontov were canceled after activists declared hunger strikes when two opposition candidates were barred from running. `
So is a trend afoot? Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center thinks so.
"This is quite a list," she says. "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."
Yaroslavl was also notable for the unified strategy Russia's normally fractious opposition used in the contest.
Urlashov was able to marshal the support of a broad medley of parties including the communists, the liberal Yabloko party, and the center-left A Just Russia.
He also had the backing of billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov as well as the civic organization Democratic Choice.
“The road to the Kremlin is through Yaroslavl,” Democratic Choice leader Vladimir Milov wrote in a recent blog post.
According to Nikolai Petrov, a specialist in regional politics for the Moscow Carnegie Center, this unlikely synergy paid off.
"It's a precedent," he says. "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."
Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the Yabloko party, maintains that the cooperation had initially not been deliberate, but added that the Yaroslavl precedent offers important lessons.
"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."
And they will get their chance soon enough.
The next big wave of regional and municipal elections comes in the autumn, on October 14, when a batch of regional parliaments, city councils, and mayors' offices will be up for grabs.
Petrov and other analysts have noted that a big prize on October 14 will be the mayoral election in Krasnoyarsk, capital of the oil-rich Siberian region of the same name.
Analysts noted that in Yaroslavl runoff on April 1, Urlashov, a maverick city council deputy who quit United Russia in protest last year, won nearly all of the city's protest vote -- adding 30 percent to his first round total.
Conversely, Yakushev, who was handpicked to run by the local elite, barely improved on the 27 percent he won in the March 4 first round. He took just 28 percent of the vote in the runoff.
Petrov also noted that Yakushev’s inability to even match the scant 29 percent of the vote that United Russia won in the Yaroslavl Oblast in the December 4 State Duma elections shows that the ruling party's rating remains low.
Unique Civic Participation
Masha Lipman has also called the party an increasingly “losing brand.”
Speaking to RFE/RL last week, Urlashov said it had been "an extremely dirty election campaign," during which unidentified attackers set fire to the car of one of his financial backers. He also claimed his opponents had distributed fake campaign material in his name to discredit him.
Many feared that the election would be further marred by vote tampering, prompting hundreds of election observers to pour into the picturesque city located on the Volga River, 270 kilometers northeast of Moscow.
Many of these were deployed by opposition parties or by the independent “Golos” election monitoring group, which recorded ballot stuffing and vote-buying on election day, according to a statement
on its website.
But Petrov suggests that the most significant addition to local election monitoring in the regions were simple Russia citizens.
"What was unique was the civic participation," he said. "There were over 1,000 election observers who came from Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kostroma. That's really very interesting. This local election appeared to be a national event and for the first time observers came from Moscow to Yaroslavl to participate in these polls."