Russian opposition candidate wins mayoral vote

April 2, 2012 - 11:26 AM
Russia Protest

Russian police officers detain protesters during an unsanctioned opposition rally in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, April 1, 2012. Police in Moscow have detained about 30 anti-Kremlin protesters outside the gates to Red Square. Opposition activists called for supporters to walk around Red Square on Sunday wearing the white ribbons that have become a symbol of the protest movement against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Putin will begin serving a third presidential term in May. (AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel)

MOSCOW (AP) — An anti-corruption crusader has won a landslide victory in a mayoral election in a major Russian city, dealing a painful blow to the powerful pro-Kremlin party and energizing the beleaguered opposition.

Yevgeny Urlashov won 70 percent of Sunday's vote in Yaroslavl, a city of about 590,000 some 250 kilometers (150 miles) east of Moscow, easily defeating the acting mayor, who was the candidate of president-elect Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.

Urlashov's victory reflects growing public irritation with official corruption and social inequality. And it gives new hope to Russia's opposition, which has struggled to maintain momentum after Putin won a third presidential term last month.

Opposition leaders have urged their supporters to focus on local elections, and Urlashov's victory in Sunday's poll will likely bolster that strategy.

"People of Yaroslavl have grown tired of corruption and nepotism, they want changes," Urlashov said Monday on Ekho Moskvy radio.

He has promised to fight graft by introducing tight public control over the city government's spending and to cut red tape.

Urlashov, a 45-year-old lawyer who was a member of the municipal council, won the race following a campaign heavily slanted in favor of his rival, who received blanket positive coverage from local television. Authorities also sought to intimidate Urlashov with a police raid on his headquarters.

Independent observer groups that had monitored Russia's presidential election also fielded their people in Yaroslavl to prevent vote-rigging. Nonetheless, Urlashov said there were many violations.

Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team who finished third in March's presidential race, said Urlashov's victory marked a major achievement for independent monitors.

"If we unite and defend our civil rights, we can meet our goal," Prokhorov wrote in his blog. "And our goal is simple: honesty and justice in politics."

Prokhorov said the Yaroslavl election also demonstrated that civic activism is expanding its scope beyond the unprecedented wave of massive protest rallies over the past four months.

"Protest activities now involve concrete issues: election monitoring, creation of parties and movements, conducting civic initiatives that change our lives," he said. "And this is only the beginning."

Analysts said Urlashov's victory reflected a continuing plunge in the popularity of Putin's party, which barely maintained a majority in December's parliamentary election, despite widespread reports of vote-rigging.

"That was another bell ring for United Russia," independent political analyst Valery Khomyakov said, according to the RIA Novosti news agency. "It wasn't the first, and certainly not the last one."