YAROSLAVL, Russia -- Facing a local media blackout in Yaroslavl, opposition mayoral candidate Yevgeny Urlashov traveled to Moscow this week in an effort to get his message out to voters via national media.
Invited to appear on the popular Ekho Moskvy radio station, Urlashov discussed his campaign, his program, and his plans for the city should he be elected. The interview was broadcast all over Russia -- except, that is, where it would have mattered. The station's signal was mysteriously blocked in Yaroslavl.
Urlashov's Offices Raided By Russian Police
The Ekho Moskvy incident is typical of what Urlashov, a maverick city council deputy, has been facing since he took first place in the March 4 opening round of the city's mayoral election with more than 40 percent of the vote. He is the clear front-runner going into the April 1 runoff against Yakov Yakushev of the ruling United Russia party, who took just 27 percent in the first round.
But if he was able to slip under the radar in the first round, when all of the ruling party's attention -- and administrative resources -- were focused on getting Vladimir Putin elected president, now he finds himself very much in the regional elite's crosshairs.
Pulling Out The Stops
Elkhan Mardaliyev, secretary of the Yaroslavl Communist Party, said the regional branch of United Russia and the governor’s office is pulling out all the stops to get its man elected mayor, fearing reprisals from Moscow should they fail.
“The amount of dirt that has been visited on Yevgeny Robertovich [Urlashov] would suffice for 10 campaigns," Mardaliyev says. "This has probably been the dirtiest election in Russian history.”
In his bid to become mayor of this picturesque city of 600,000 people located 270 kilometers northeast of Moscow, Urlashov has won the backing of a broad coalition of opposition groups, including the Communists, the liberal Yabloko party, and the center-left A Just Russia, and the civic organization Democratic Choice.
Vladimir Zubkov, head of Yabloko’s Yaroslavl branch, praised this unusual synergy among Russia's normally fractious opposition.
“This has never happened before. Three opposition parties have come together to support a single independent candidate," Zubkov says. "This is a breakthrough and a real achievement. People have learned -- at least in Yaroslavl -- to work things out despite different political differences.”
'We Are Afraid'
Hundreds of election observers are pouring in from a wide variety of camps, including billionaire oligarch-turned-politician Mikhail Prokhorov’s team, Vladimir Milov’s Democratic Choice organization, and the national branches of the Communists, Yabloko, and Just Russia.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Urlashov said such measures were necessary to thwart what he expects to be widespread attempts at voter fraud.
“We are afraid that there will be a lot of ballot-stuffing, rigging, and falsification," Urlashov says. "That’s why so many journalists are coming – between 70 and 100 – and there will be a lot of election observers.”
Urlashov says his opponents have been distributing fake campaign material in his name to discredit him and have paid “provocateurs” to upstage his meetings with the public. Last month, unidentified attackers set fire to the car of one of his financial backers and an editor in chief was sacked when his local television station gave him airtime.
The 44-year-old slightly built Urlashov, a Yaroslavl native, wears the insignia of the local “Lokomotiv” hockey team -- whose entire roster was killed in a September 2011 plane crash -- on his lapel. He made his reputation as an active and vocal city council deputy of eight years and is campaigning to “return the city to the people.”
Urlashov represented United Russia for three years in the city council, but publicly quit the party when he was told to retract critical comments he made about how the authorities handled the Lokomotiv plane crash. He said this had been the last straw in an often awkward arrangement that saw him almost expelled from the party twice prior to that.
The local information blockade forced Urlashov to engage in retail street-level politics, holding some 240 meetings with voters in the courtyards of apartment buildings.
Yakushev, 51, Urlashov's opponent, is a deputy in the regional duma and a local oligarch who made his fortune in construction, paint, and auto parts.
The United Russia member styles himself as an experienced manager, philanthropist, and family man. It is widely believed he was selected by the regional elite to run after lengthy debate over a suitable replacement for the outgoing mayor, Viktor Volonchunas, who came to the city helm before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Mardaliyev, the Communist Party secretary, said this initial procrastination is why Urlashov – who was the first to register for the race -- was not barred from taking part, as were five of the nine candidates who applied.
Last week, Yakushev raised eyebrows when he was unexpectedly appointed acting deputy mayor -- effectively serving as de facto mayor while Volonchunas is on holiday. Predictably, the local media have been quick to praise his performance.
“Yakushev is already at work in the Yaroslavl town hall as the deputy mayor and in just literally a week he has managed a lot," the popular weekly "Rodnoi gorod" wrote in a recent story.
Maiya Zavyalova, a member of Yabloko who was in Yaroslavl to coordinate the parties’ observer mission, called the article "zakazukha" -- slang for journalism that is ordered up by the authorities.
Zavyalova adds that attempts to smear Urlashov are backfiring in the town, which appears to be home for an anti-Kremlin mood.
United Russia polled badly here in December's State Duma elections, taking just 29 percent in Yaroslavl Oblast. Prime Minister and President-elect Vladimir Putin also polled 9 percent lower in the region than he did nationally in the March 4 election, winning 54.5 percent.
Bellwether Of National Mood
Meanwhile, many national opposition figures are looking at Yaroslavl as a bellwether of the national mood. Vladimir Milov wrote on a blog on the website of Ekho Moskvy radio that the “road to the Kremlin passes through Yaroslavl" – a key battleground that could reinvigorate the Russia-wide protest movement whose staying power came into question after the presidential election.
On March 18, an independent candidate backed by Mikhail Prokhorov decisively beat the Kremlin’s man in mayoral elections in the auto-making city of Tolyatti.
Local Yabloko head Zubkov points to the elections in Yaroslavl and Tolyati as evidence of an emerging pattern.
“We can talk of the start of a trend – opposition parties have begun working together at a municipal level after they saw that the unconstructive and split position of the opposition at the federal elections wasn't a success,” Zubkov says.