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The Road to the Kremlin Goes Through Yaroslavl

James Brooke

In Russia, opposition politics did not end with last month’s election of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to a six-year term as president.

Two years ago, as the Volga River city of Yaroslavl approached its 1,000th anniversary, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin poured millions of dollars into refurbishing churches and restoring the city’s medieval citadel.

Then disaster struck last September. Anti-Kremlin feelings surged after a plane carrying the city’s hockey team crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all but one on board. The team had been forced to play an away game because President Dmitry Medvedev had taken over their arena for a presidential conference.

Prime Minister Putin visited the city and laid flowers on the caskets of the 26 players. But the gesture was not enough.

Independent mayoral candidate Yevgeny Urlashov casts his vote at a polling station in the city of Yaroslavl, some 250 kilometers (160 miles) northeast of Moscow April 1, 2012.
Independent mayoral candidate Yevgeny Urlashov casts his vote at a polling station in the city of Yaroslavl, some 250 kilometers (160 miles) northeast of Moscow April 1, 2012.
This month, when Yaroslavl voted for mayor, an outsider, Yevgeny Urlashov, beat the pro-Kremlin candidate 70 to 28. Urlashov said the plane crash turned many people against Moscow.

He said 100,000 people walked to the hockey rink to lay flowers.

But there was more to the anti-Kremlin vote than that. Urlashov said people were fed up with corruption that had grown up around a pro-Kremlin mayor, a man who had ruled this city for 23 years.

He said residents want a peaceful change toward a more open, transparent and competitive system.

This kind of grassroots democracy has gotten the Kremlin's attention. Opposition candidates recently won races for mayor in Yaroslavl and four other big cities.

In May, a new law will allow direct elections for governor.  In advance, the Kremlin is rushing to appoint governors in eight key regions, including Moscow.

Urlashov supporter Andrey Chekanov believes the political road to the Kremlin now goes through cities like Yaroslavl. He said in country where nearly 60 percent of adults are on the internet, people are increasingly thinking independently.

Alexander Sokolov, who runs a local civic action group, says Yaroslavl residents know many projects promised for the city’s 1000th anniversary were never completed. He said promises were not kept, and residents are waiting for answers.

Now, as Vladimir Putin prepares for his May 7 inauguration as president, he faces a Russia that is increasingly prepared to say, "Nyet."

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