‘Yaroslavl – graveyard of the Russian spring’

4/2/2014

Russia’s protest movement was at its strongest during 2011 and 2012. One of its chief objectives was to win at local elections and then change the system from inside. The mayoral election in Yaroslavl seemed to be proof positive that this was a realistic goal. Until, that is, Yevgeny Urlashov, the mayor who won against the ruling ‘United Russia’ Party, was removed from his post and transferred to the pre-trial detention facilities at Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison, where he is still awaiting trial.

His detention has been extended and almost certainly will be again, probably more than once. The conditions in which he is being held have seriously affected his health, to the extent that his teeth are said to be falling out. The former mayor refuses to acknowledge his guilt, and describes his hounding from office as politically motivated. Urlashov, accused of embezzling 14m roubles (£280,000) and receiving bribes amounting to 500,000 roubles (£9,300), faces a possible fifteen-year sentence. The former mayor refuses to acknowledge his guilt, and describes his hounding from office as politically motivated.

However, his voters have not exactly turned out en masse to protest. The protest movement’s theory of small-scale politics has not worked in Yaroslavl; democracy has not been ‘built in one city’ any more than Stalin managed to build socialism in one country. Why not?

The golden goose

Firstly, it is the most ancient town on the river Volga, and the high point of Russia’s ‘Golden Ring’ tourist route. Yaroslavl is like a small capital, but not only because it is so ancient: it has an oil refinery and, outside the city, the headquarters of an oil company, and a pumping station. Spheres of influence controlling the flows of oil and finance are definitely something worth fighting for.

Secondly, the results of the most recent parliamentary and municipal elections across Russia, which acted as the catalyst for the mass opposition protests, encouraged observers to describe Yaroslavl as an ‘opposition city.’ At the general election, United Russia received only 29% of the vote there; and at the presidential election, Vladimir Putin’s share of the vote was 54.53%, lower than the average percentage for the whole of the country.

Birthplace of the Russian spring

In the spring of 2012, independent candidate Yevgeny Urlashov based his election campaign on the slogan ‘Against crooks and thieves,’ a reference to Alexey Navalny’s notorious description of the ruling United Russia party. Activists in the campaign ‘For fair elections’ flocked to Yaroslavl to help with canvassing, and to act as observers and volunteers. All parties, except United Russia, came out in support of Urlashov, with their representatives swearing allegiance to democracy and honesty in press interviews both in- and outside Russia. Journalists trumpeted the victory of small-scale politics and the success of the opposition’s strategy to change government from inside by mobilising around one democratic candidate for the post of mayor; and ensuring that there were observers at the polling stations.

Urlashov won almost 70% of the vote and, in gratitude for their efforts, gave his supporters and assistants a new slogan: ‘Yaroslavl – birthplace of the Russian spring.’ 

Few could have thought that these results would be only temporary, but that is how it turned out. The supporters of the theory of ‘seizing power’ at elections, and Urlashov’s former assistants, in particular, are thoroughly demoralised. 

Everybody is a crook except Putin

Yevgeny Urlashov was mayor for just over a year. What did he achieve during that time?

He got rid of the kiosks, which had been erected in the historic centre, a UNESCO conservation zone. 

He allowed street protest meetings, which, he noted, contributed to a sharp drop in their popularity. 

He set up groups of vigilantes to keep things in order in the city. 

He got the roads mended – not all of them, of course… 

He went on seven foreign trips – this was in his capacity as a live Russian ‘attraction,’ a democratically elected mayor.  His opponents were disgruntled at this because they considered the trips were financed at the expense of the road repairs. 

He wrote several letters of complaint to President Vladimir Putin, claiming that the governor of the Yaroslavl Region was refusing to allocate money to the city, which he, Urlashov, needed to be able to pay his public servants more. There were good reasons for writing these letters, as Urlashov said on more than one occasion: they let Putin know what was happening ‘at grassroots level,’ and the situation in Yaroslavl did, indeed, change as a result.

Arrest

During the night of July 3rd, Yevgeny Urlashov was arrested, suddenly and quite brutally, with no reasons given and no chance to see his lawyers; criminal cases had been brought against him by two United Russia members – Sergei Shmelyov and Eduard Avdalyan. The former even asked for police protection from Urlashov supporters, whom he regarded as aggressive fanatics. The first case related to the apparent embezzlement of fourteen million roubles from Shmelyov; and the second to bribes amounting to half a million roubles, which he was supposed to have accepted from Avdalyan.

Investigators decided that Urlashov was acting as part of an organised crime group.

Investigators decided that Urlashov was acting as part of an organised crime group, made up of his deputy, Dmitry Donskov; the head of the mayoral agency in charge of municipal procurement, Maxim Pokalainen; and the mayoral adviser, Alexei Lopatin.

Moscow’s Basmanny Court very soon (July 18th) removed Urlashov from the post of mayor.

Urlashov continues to deny the accusations and cast doubts on the authenticity of one of the chief pieces of prosecution evidence: an audio recording, which was posted on the site of a popular ‘tabloid’ media outlet. In it, someone calling himself Urlashov reminds his interlocutor about the money he is expecting in return for work carried out to clean up the city. 

That is not all: in the middle of November, another member of the Urlashov team was arrested on suspicion of taking bribes: his deputy responsible for construction, Yevgeny Rozanov. He apparently embezzled one million roubles (£18,600) from a Yaroslavl businessman in return for extending a rental contract on a plot of land belonging to the state.


Urlashov's imprisonment has given rise to relatively muted opposition on the part of those who elected him in Yaroslavl. Photo CC Night Rain 5

Defence

Now it is not Urlashov that is appealing to Putin, but those who think as he does; one of the most active is Mikhail Prokhorov, head of the‘Civic Platform’party, whose list Urlashov was to have headed in the regional parliamentary election on September 8th. At a recent meeting between Putin and leaders of parliamentary parties, Prokhorov asked the President to look into the Urlashov case, stressing that Putin himself had won at a free and fair election, without in any way limiting the number of his competitors – of which Prokhorov was one. 

Putin’s response was measured.

Putin’s response was measured: ‘one has to look at the realities. I try not to become involved in cases under consideration, but will nevertheless certainly take a look at what’s going on there. If it’s just a case of economic crime, then special attention will be required. I agree.’

In September of this year, Civic Platform handed Putin a letter with 50,000 signatures in support of Urlashov. The message, in brief, was to the effect that you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, may observe the constitution to the letter, but not all provincial officials are so scrupulous, so we ask you to take steps to relax Urlashov’s pre-trial restrictions. He might, after all, be innocent. 

This appeal is very much in the spirit of Urlashov himself, a continuation of the careful line expressed in his earlier letters to the President, who, he writes, was legitimately elected and always acts within the law; a president who has nothing to do with ‘crooks and thieves’ – nothing at all.

A divided loyalty

At the end of the 2000s, Yevgeny Urlashov was, in fact, a member of United Russia, the party that Vladimir Putin spent such a long time setting up and leading, and of which he is still the unofficial leader.

At the end of the 2000s, Yevgeny Urlashov was, in fact, a member of United Russia.

On the Yaroslavl mayoral website there is no information about the criminal case against Urlashov, or that he was once a paid-up party member of United Russia. That is how it is with Russian official sites: if you want to read about talent contests called ‘My region sings’ or a school’s hopscotch super cup, then that is where to find it, but nothing more substantial than that.

Urlashov himself is trying to attract as much attention as possible to the criminal cases against him. However, he doesn’t like talking so much about his United Russia past. One of his rare statements on the subject confirms that he joined the party to defend the rights of the Yaroslavl local deputies. Then, in September 2011, he left, disillusioned, saying that he had been pressured to express only party opinions, rather than his own. 

Nevertheless, despite his election campaign slogan about thieves and crooks, Urlashov has never criticised that party at all seriously. What he did say indicated that things were actually not so bad: he has friends who are still in United Russia, and the party is merely in need of reform; and that Vladimir Putin was right to establish the All-Russian National Front, which, to Urlashov, had more chance of succeeding than the ruling party. Urlashov emphasised that he had never had, nor had now, any problems with the Kremlin; Putin and Urlashov are, after all, both interested in ensuring that there is order in society…

In office, Yevgeny Urlashov thanked the members of the Moscow opposition for coming to his aid during the election campaign, but said that he did not share their anti-Putin slogans. There is democracy in Russia, he said, and he is the living proof of that. He criticised the people protesting at the May 6th rally on Bolotnaya Square, for fighting with the police (as if they had initiated those fights…), and was generally sceptical about the Moscow street protests.

In pre-trial detention, however, Urlashov described himself as a political prisoner.

In pre-trial detention, however, Urlashov described himself as a political prisoner, and called on Muscovites to come out on the street with slogans supporting his release, during the October march in support of political prisoners; and some did – in thousands, though no more than five. Street rallies in Yaroslavl in support of Urlashov attracted no more than 5,000-10,000 people; many fewer than had signed the letter in his support, and sent it to Putin; and very few by comparison with the population of Yaroslavl (600,000). 

Perhaps it was not only the criminal cases against Yaroslavl’s mayor, who stood up to the ruling party, that shattered the dream of building democracy in one city? Perhaps it began much earlier, because he had not really stood up to the boss of the party, of which he had been a loyal member?

http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/elena-vlasenko/%E2%80%98yaroslavl-%E2%80%93-graveyard-of-russian-spring%E2%80%99

4/2/2014
ELENA VLASENKO

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