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Controversial Opposition Wild Card Yevgeny Roizman Takes Over In Yekaterinburg

Yekaterinburg's controversial Mayor-elect Yevgeny Roizman
Yekaterinburg's controversial Mayor-elect Yevgeny Roizman
One week ahead of his 51st birthday, Yevgeny Roizman, a maverick activist, businessman, historian, athlete, and poet seems poised to become the next mayor of Russia's fourth-largest city.

According to preliminary results of the single round of voting on September 8, outsider Roizman won with 33.25 percent of the vote, edging out the ruling United Russia party candidate Yakov Silin, who polled almost 30 percent. Roizman ran on the ticket of oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov's Civic Platform party against 11 other candidates.

Although he is now the highest-placed opposition figure in Russia, Roizman is a center of controversy -- a reputed Russian nationalist with a penchant for plain talk, direct action, and possible connections with the murky world of Yekaterinburg organized crime.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service shortly before the election, Roizman explained the reasoning behind his decision to run for mayor as a reaction to President Vladimir Putin's appointment of people from other regions to senior posts in the Urals city.

"It turned out that this city of 1.5 million people -- a strong, good city -- was governed entirely by outsiders," he said. "Simply all of them. We could let ourselves get pushed a little further aside and further, but they'll have all the posts. And in our own city, we'll become outsiders. So I made the decision to run."

According to Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, Roizman as a candidate appealed to deeply offended "regional patriotism."

"In this regard, Roizman could be the candidate who united the electorate that did not like [the domination of outsiders] and who were ready to vote for one of their own, for a strong, clear leader who has proven his effectiveness in actual practice," Petrov said.

A Roguish Streak

Roizman is a scruffy, muscular man who speaks softly but with a hint of swagger. And he has earned that swagger with a record of success in nearly everything he does: a former State Duma deputy, a member of the Academy of Arts, a member of the Writers Union, a prominent collector of Orthodox icons, founder of Russia's first private museum, and author of three collections of poetry.

He also has a roguish streak and cuts a populist image as a man of the people. He left home at 14 and wandered the Soviet Union. He worked as a machinist at the massive Uralmash plant. In 1981, he was convicted of robbery, extortion, and carrying an illegal weapon. He served a brief sentence in a Soviet prison but his conviction was annulled in 1984.

Roizman has been dogged by accusations that he was connected with the notorious Uralmash organized-crime syndicate in the 1990s. During the mayoral campaign, Sverdlovsk Oblast prosecutors threatened to investigate his alleged Uralmash links after state television broadcast what it described as a "terrifying" exposé on him, claiming that he was backed by others besides Prokhorov's Civic Platform in the upcoming election.

In 1999, Roizman cofounded the project he is best known for today -- his controversial City Without Drugs program. It is a tough-love program that essentially kidnaps drug addicts and holds them in virtual captivity until they kick their habit by going cold turkey. In a 2011 profile of the program in "The New York Times," a staff member said bluntly: "The police couldn't do this because it is against the law."

City Without Drugs was also known for carrying out vigilante-style raids against alleged drug dealers. Roizman offers no apologies, maintaining that the project has curtailed the drug problem in Yekaterinburg.

"We were able to attract the entire population to [participate in] this work," he said. "We arranged relations with law-enforcement agencies and the prosecutor's office. We achieved serious results. We have carried out more than 5,500 successful operations against drug dealers."

Tough-Love Approach

In 2006, Roizman was given a state medal by the Federal Antinarcotics Service. At the same time, the foundation has found itself in legal trouble many times for such offenses as handcuffing addicts to beds. Roizman dismisses the criticism as jealousy of City Without Drugs' success.

The tough-love approach that is the heart of City Without Drugs carried over into Roizman's mayoral campaign. When locals asked him when the city would repair their apartment blocks, he famously told them to go repair them themselves.

Asked about his time in a Soviet jail, Roizman told "The Moscow Times" that it "would be good for anybody in Russia to spend some time in jail. Without such an experience you can't truly understand life in Russia."

As mayor, however, Roizman faces stiff obstacles. He must somehow find a way to work with the city council, which continues to be dominated by the United Russia party following the September 8 elections. And he must work with Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Yevgeny Kuivashev, a United Russia insider.

"Roizman is not inclined to compromise and does not accept criticism well," Yekaterinburg analyst Anatoly Gagarin was quoted by RIA-Novosti as saying.

Nonetheless, St. Petersburg-based political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov sees Roizman as having the potential to become a national-level opposition figure on a par with anticorruption blogger turned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who is struggling to force a recount in the September 8 Moscow mayoral election.

"If the Moscow situation is contained, naturally, Roizman will position himself to a significant extent as a Urals Navalny, demonstrating that he is exactly that sort of opposition politician, a leader of the political opposition," Vinogradov said.

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mikhail Sokolov contributed to this report from Moscow

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