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'This Is Only The Beginning': What's Next For Russia's Brash (Former) Mayor Of Yekaterinburg?

Former Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeny Roizman, who was one of the very few Russian regional or local officials openly critical of President Vladimir Putin

In a political system tightly controlled by the Kremlin, Yevgeny Roizman was an outlier: a brash, independent mayor of a major Russian city who openly criticized President Vladimir Putin and offered support for opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.

Now, Roizman is out as the mayor of Yekaterinburg, having resigned on May 22 rather than go along with the decision last month by lawmakers in Russia's fourth-largest city to abolish mayoral elections. And his options for a future in Russian electoral politics are meager, political analysts say.

"I'm going home. We'll live our lives. This is only the beginning," Roizman told the Russian-language Current Time TV after announcing his resignation during a meeting of the city council that he chaired.

Roizman's victory over his rival from Russia's ruling United Russia party in Yekaterinburg's 2013 mayoral election was one of the more curious and unexpected events in Russian electoral politics in recent years.

A tough-talking populist who clashed with his region's Kremlin-backed authorities, Roizman made a name for himself in his native Yekaterinburg with his contentious City Without Drugs Program, built on the forced rehabilitation of addicts and vigilante raids against drug dealers. He also faced accusations of racism in his antidrug crusade, allegations he rejected.

Roizman talks to patients in an isolation ward for drug addicts in a residential treatment center in Yekaterinburg in March 2004.
Roizman talks to patients in an isolation ward for drug addicts in a residential treatment center in Yekaterinburg in March 2004.

​Roizman eventually won a seat in Russia's lower house of parliament beginning in 2003 and remained involved in a range of political movements after leaving office in 2007.

Portraying himself as a champion of local rule and an opponent of diktats from Moscow, Roizman edged out his Kremlin-backed opponent in the 2013 mayoral election.

At the time, Putin himself appeared to hold up Roizman's victory as an example of political plurality in a country where critics say the Kremlin has rolled back democracy and tightened the screws on political opponents.

"He's a unique person," Putin said at the time. "A representative of the so-called 'nonsystemic' opposition. He went out there and won."

Roizman's powers as Yekaterinburg's mayor were very limited, with most executive authority belonging to the head of the city administration.

But he enjoys significant popularity in the city of 1.4 million and name recognition that is not dependent on his official position, said Yekaterina Shulman, a political scientist at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.

"There are very few such people in our public sphere. You can literally count them on one hand…. Public figures in current Russian politics increasingly tend to be nonentities, indistinguishable save their titles," Shulman told RFE/RL.

Roizman, then an opposition mayoral candidate, talks to reporters in Yekaterinburg in September 2013.
Roizman, then an opposition mayoral candidate, talks to reporters in Yekaterinburg in September 2013.

Shulman said if Roizman, 55, intends to remain in electoral politics, his best bet would likely be to pursue legislative office. Any mayoral or gubernatorial ambitions would likely be shut down, she said.

"Such elections are controlled very strictly, mainly by denying access [to the ballot]," Shulman said.

Roizman, whose five-year term was set to expire in September, complained last year that a Kremlin-backed legal mechanism was used to keep him off the ballot in the gubernatorial election eventually won by United Russia candidate Yevgeny Kuyvashev -- a claim rejected by Russia's elections chief.

Tatyana Stanovaya, head of the Paris-based think tank R.Politik, said Roizman is likely to ally himself with opposition forces -- such as Navalny -- who operate outside the Kremlin-approved political system.

"I think that in the grand scheme of things, he only has one option: to embed himself with the nonsystemic opposition and those fighting against the regime, and continue his fight," she told RFE/RL.

Roizman and Navalny both called for a boycott of the March 18 election that handed Putin a new six-year term in a ballot denounced by critics as a stage-managed affair lacking true competition.

And he attended a May 5 rally in Yekaterinburg -- one of several organized nationwide by Navalny – against Putin's inauguration two days later.

Speaking on May 22 to Current Time TV, a project of RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America, Roizman slammed the decision by Yekaterinburg lawmakers last month to abolish mayoral elections as a "betrayal of the interests of the city and its citizens."

"This is the problem of local councils all over. The local council today is simply being cornered. Step by step, the local council is being stripped of everything -- authority, finance, direct elections," Roizman said.

"There cannot be a strong country when its cities are weak," he added. "A strong country is only possible with strong cities."

Asked about his plans, Roizman told Ekho Moskvy radio following his resignation on May 22 that he is a "historian, researcher, and a writer," and that he has his own charity foundation that will keep him busy.

"Politically, the field is dried up and destroyed. But nonetheless, there are already tons of offers. That I will be in demand, that's a certainty," Roizman said.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.