No sooner had I arrived in Moscow last weekend, was its reinvigorated political atmosphere more apparent to me. Needing to catch an inter-city train from the Yaroslavskii station, I was unsuprisingly crowded out by the morass of its notorious traffic. As we crawled, my heart warmed at the sight of passing cars and protesters on pavements waving their white ribbons, the symbol of the street protests to the December elections and rule of Vladimir Vladimirovich. But when I reached the front-end of the traffic, and the Kamaz truck that had deliberately held back thousands of desparing drivers and its adorning pro-Putin slogans, my mood was at its foulest. My strongest suspcion is that Putin supporters had entirely hijacked the message for “fair elections,” the rallying call of the Moscovite opposition. I missed the train, but my anger at this misappropriation was palpable and even greater.
The scale and scope of the genuine opposition protests, unprecedented these last two decades, have no doubt injected a good dose of interest and significance in this Sunday’s presidential elections. All the same, little appears to have changed. Airtime for the so-deemed opposition candidates on state television has slightly increased, under the pretence of the “democratisation of television,” but the advert techniques are remniscient of my middle school film class efforts and the candidates as hopelessly irrelevant as ever. Highlights: Zyuganov wants to restore the industrial remnants of the country and build spaceships anew against a sci-fi background, Vladimir muses on the beauty of the Russian nation while ice fishing and proclaims “Zhirinovsky – and all will be better!”, Mironov places his hand on a new Russian constitution in a comic strip and Prokharov enthuses his supporters in potentially the most wooden and dry claim to Barack Obama’s alleged stage magnetism. The relevance of their debates requires no further elaboration. All of this while Putin’s bulletin, no doubt boosted by yesterday’s coverage of the ever-believable Umarov-Odessa-UAE plot, enjoys at least three times as much airtime and personal care. Tellingly though, his face has been absent from virtually all billboards and political broadcasts, entirely at odds with the 66% poll ratings lately branded around.
But here in Yaroslavl, where I spend my semester abroad, the presidential elections have very much taken a back seat to the city’s mayoral and municipal elections, held on the same day. After nearly two decades the mayor has called it a day, offering a rare chance for political regeneration as the intense campaigning on the streets indicates, and amid a unique context in contemporary Russia. A proud and historic city which celebrated its millennial year just two years ago, many have confided to me their disappointment that the region has been poorly governed and lost its way for the past decade or so. Little wonder United Russia yielded its lowest score in any Russian region in the Yaroslavl province in December’s parliamentary elections, perhaps also partially a result of the city’s relatively well-educated and prosperous populace, with greater exposure to political sentiment in Moscow, and a local economy with a smaller stake for the state, thus limiting its possibilities for mobilising and cajoling the public sector at the polls.
The man many pin their hopes on is Yevgeny Urlashov, touted as a truly independent candidate and democrat, in spite of my scepticism of the veracity of such labels in Russian local governance, especially given his recent membership of United Russia. Apparently boasting a good record in local government, capitalising on the “thieves and swindlers” catchphrase and promising accountability and governance in the city’s interest, in sharp contrast to the boorish pledges of his fellow competitors, and running a slicker and fresher media campaign, younger voters have taken to him. The local communists also endorsed him in their electoral pamphlet, suggesting a certain level of support among older voters. One of my teachers here expressed her respect for him, particularly given his public and lone scepticism of the official reasons for the September crash that wiped out the Lokomotiv hockey team, suggesting that the fated aircraft, at a time when the city was hosting Medvedev’s annual Yaroslavl conference, had not been granted full use of the runway. She also admired the continuing loyalty to his wife fifteen years after her death.
All of this is difficult for a mere week’s resident to judge, but what is evident is that his presence in the race has provoked considerable consternation, ostensibly in the corridors of the city’s administration. His critics have cheaply dismissed him as a drunkard, apparently circulating pictures of his postrated self outside his home and churning out similarly unsavoury rumours from the university years. A court on Sunday heard accusations that he had attached his name or image to a card campaign on Valentine’s Day, supposedly invoking a breach of “copyright” regulations which merited his exclusion from the race. Minutes after the complaint was thrown out, the man who had lodged it mysteriously declared his candidacy for the LDPR the following week. So intense has the scorn directed his way been, that many voters, while confirming their admiration for him, fear the mayoralty will prove an ungovernable task until 2017 and prefer to vote for a safer bet of sorts. Whatever outcome awaits next Sunday here in Yaroslavl, it promises to be no less disputed and potentially dubious than that on a nationwide basis.