A party of power that has to share power, an opposition mayor who gets by on charisma and professionalism, and voters evaluating both but idolizing neither: legislative elections in the ancient Russian city of Yaroslavl on Sunday were anything but typical.
Though merely a blip on the country’s political radar, the Yaroslavl vote offers a glimpse of how Russian politics could look after the Kremlin’s dominance of the country’s political life comes to its long-predicted end.
“We’re not quite the ruling party, true, but we can work with it,” said Ilya Osipov, head of the city branch of the pro-Kremlin United Russia, which controls most legislatures nationwide.
“It’s all about checks and balances,” he added, citing a concept that was highly unusual for most Russian regions until recently.
Man and Common Man
Yaroslavl Mayor Yevgeny Urlashov travels about without entourage and personally holds the door for elderly voters filing into the polling station. He is not above holding the pose for a camera, when he spots one.
This is not the first display of attention lavished upon city residents during the campaign: Urlashov’s prospective allies and rivals alike combed the courtyards of Yaroslavl, holding face-to-face meetings with voters, many of whom were more than ready to dole out the flak to any men in suits who condescended to pay them a visit.
While perfectly unremarkable by the standards of a Western democracy, such voter-friendly behavior is about as unusual for heartland Russia as a samurai swordfight.
But Yaroslavl, a city of 590,000 located 280 kilometers northeast of Moscow, is a standout. The region gave United Russia its lowest score among all 83 regions in the parliamentary elections last December – 29 percent compared to the national average of 49 percent.
In April, Urlashov demolished his United Russia rival in the runoff mayoral vote that followed a heated campaign full of abuse of authority allegations. The vote remained the main electoral victory for the anti-Kremlin forces since December, which marked the start of unyielding street rallies against the leadership of President Vladimir Putin.
United Russia bounced back on Sunday, scoring 25 of 38 seats in the city legislature. But it had 33 seats in the previous city parliament – including one for Urlashov, who quit the party just last fall to stand as an independent.
Yaroslavl is the southernmost tip of a northern Russian constituency that is noted for its lack of sympathy for the ruling establishment, said independent regional analyst Alexei Titkov.
“It’s just down to things like culture and historical evolution,” Titkov said.
The local trend was overridden when Putin moved into the Kremlin in 2000, using a mixture of restrictive legislation and administrative resource to give his United Russia a near-absolute hold on power across the country.
The December vote put United Russia – which critics see as the party of a corrupt, elitist bureaucracy – firmly on the defensive.
Regional authorities slashed Yaroslavl’s funding after his victory, a typical punishment for voting “the wrong way” in Russia.
But money started flowing back as the governor’s office realized it is better off cooperating with the widely popular mayor, said Ksenia Maltseva, the coordinator for the Yaroslavl of independent electoral watchdog Golos.
“He’s awesome; he really stood up to them. We were so hoping he’d win and were really scared he’d be flunked,” local pensioner Yelena fawned over Urlashov, as if still only half-believing that he won the mayoral vote.
A Modicum of Common Sense
“We’re actually grateful to Urlashov for helping us clean up our act,” said United Russia’s Osipov.
He readily conceded that United Russia has lost focus and become soft due to the lack of competition – which is, in fact, the very claim that the party’s detractors have been throwing around since the December vote.
The party renewed 60 percent of its lineup in Yaroslavl for the Sunday vote, and focused on practical proposals in its campaign, eschewing its previous tactic of peddling its Kremlin ties as its main selling point for voters.
Both Osipov and Urlashov also pledged, in separate interviews, to work together as long as the other party sticks to sensible policies. This claim sounds plausible, if only because Osipov and Urlashov sat together in the local parliament long before United Russia arrived onto the scene.
Becoming the Enemy
In a bid for impartiality, Urlashov banned local officials from holding voter meetings on state property during the election campaign – an unusual move for Russia where bureaucrats running for office have the habit of milking their jobs for all the perks they can get.
But he also endorsed certain candidates, appearing on their billboards to tell the city residents that these are the people he wants on his team.
The move is actually illegal, Golos experts said, but Urlashov got away with it in court by claiming he had done it in a private capacity. He had a good example to follow – Putin had often used the same maneuver.
“He is using the same tricks that were used against him in the past,” said Yevgeny Golovin, a small business owner who stages anti-Kremlin rallies and pickets in support of Pussy Riot in Yaroslavl in his spare time.
The elections also comprised eight opposition parties, but most underperformed because they stuck to hackneyed, trite Kremlin-bashing, which failed to inspire the voters, local and federal experts said.
But there is a new, even more hip, younger generation waiting in the wings, such as Golovin, 29, who has pledged to run in the next district vote, five years from now.
“Yaroslavl remains an opposition-minded city. But it’s still awaiting sensible offers,” he said.