Russia: Ilya Varlamov, Omsk's Blogger-Mayor?

As the Moscow opposition adjusts to the reality of Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin, there are growing indications that the capital's activists and protesters are seeking to reestablish last winter's momentum by relocating their efforts to Russia's regions. In the last week, dozens if not hundreds of Muscovites have pilgrimaged to the southern city of Astrakhan, to support a local politician's hunger strike against last month's vote, which he claims was falsified. More than 1,500 miles to the northeast, in the city of Omsk, an activist group has arranged online primaries for opposition candidates to stand in the city's June mayoral election.

Going Digital

The virtual election is not new to the Russian opposition. In October 2010, tens of thousands of Internet users elected [ru] Aleksei Navalny to replace Yuri Luzhkov as mayor of Moscow. (Not an elected office, President Medvedev later appointed Sergei Sobyanin to serve in this position.) Navalny's virtual triumph that October was an important step to attaining the political celebrity he enjoys today.

In a LiveJournal post earlier this year, blogger Vladislav Naganov addressed the protest movement's collapse by advocating [ru] the adoption of primaries:

Generally speaking, the time has come to organize full-fledged primaries within the opposition. We can't continue as we have for much longer. We need to determine a real leader once and for all.

“Citizen Mayor” [ru] is a virtual primaries project initiated by activists in Omsk, designed to nominate a single individual to represent the city's united opposition. In a strange turn of events, photographer and popular blogger Ilya Varlamov has suddenly become the most likely winner of the “Citizen Mayor” contest, which will conclude its final round of voting [ru] on Monday, April 16.

The Joke That Has Fewer and Fewer Laughing

Russian blogger Ilya Varlamov in Moscow. Photo by VITALIY RAGULIN, (04/08/11) CC BY-SA 3.0; Wikimedia Commons.

Varlamov's candidacy started as a joke [ru] on social networks like Twitter, producing a meme that typically began “if Varlamov becomes Omsk mayor,” and followed with a humorously optimistic comment. For instance, one user tweeted: “If Varlamov becomes Omsk mayor, we'll just secede from the state and organize a mini-paradise there.” Another young woman in St. Petersburg wrote: “If Varlamov becomes mayor of Omsk, I'll leave Peter[sburg] and return to my homeland [in Omsk].”

Initially, Varlamov admitted that he could not take his candidacy seriously, telling journalists on April 5:

First, because I've only been to Omsk once, and it was only for a couple of days, and to nominate [yourself] to be head of a city that you don't know is strange, to say the least. Second, I don't want to mix politics with some kind of performance, which the campaign could become if I participate.

Five days later, however, Varlamov announced a change of heart, admitting that his running for Omsk mayor is “at first glance, entirely absurd,” but he promised the public “the funnest, loudest campaign in the history of Russian mayoral races.” He wrote [ru] in his LJ blog:

We'll bring a new level of discussion to questions about government transparency and the urban environment of Russian cities. When we're done, our issues will be the main issues of every election across the country.

In lieu of an Omsk-tailored political platform, Varlamov directed readers to an April 3 post, titled “Ten Steps: Moscow for People,” which set out ten priorities for improving urban life in Russia's capital. (Varlamov's text focuses on improving public transit, bicycle and disabled access, architectural aesthetics, and so on.) Explaining the transposition of his Moscow initiative onto Omsk, Varlamov said:

Omsk is a small Moscow. Problems everywhere are the same. First we'll put things in order there, and then across all of Russia.

Varlamov also named a handful of individuals who will join his Omsk campaign, including the mega-popular LJ blogger Artemy Lebedev, who summed up [ru] the team's plan with a characteristic flourish of profanity:

The plan is simple: Varlamov becomes the mayor of Omsk (and not on fucking Foursquare, but for real), he brings his team with him, and some decent city management begins.

Lebedev then added:

Today, Omsk is one of the country's most fucked over cities.

Going into some detail, Lebedev went on to describe his plans for the architectural redesign of Omsk, listing various types of bureaucrats and buildings that would be slated for destruction, should Varlamov win the election. “The old farts,” he wrote about the city's existing government, “will be ousted in disgrace, and left to sell sunflower seeds outside the entrances of tomorrow's construction sites.”

Winners and Losers

While campaigns like Varlamov's in Omsk and Navalny's in Astrakhan might represent exciting new directions for Moscow's opposition movement, what consequences could this projection of influence have on local actors?

Igor Fedorov is one of Omsk's most popular locally-based bloggers. Six years before Ilya Varlamov was even born, Fedorov settled in Omsk, where he has lived ever since. Though he is unlikely to defeat Varlamov, Fedorov has posted to his LJ account a far more detailed campaign program [ru], including a sober analysis [ru] of municipal revenue prospects. (He notes that 84% of the city's budget relies on three taxes that legally cannot be raised until 2013.) While Fedorov proposes many ideas that mirror Varlamov's “10 Steps,” he breaks with the Muscovite photographer on several issues that seem to carry local significance, such as celebrations for the upcoming 300-year anniversary of Omsk's founding, as well as the need to balance public transportation development with the completion of construction already underway on automobile roads. In a particularly telling distinction, Varlamov promises to import foreign specialists from America and Europe to beautify Omsk, whereas Fedorov claims [ru] that the city's ideal model should be Pavlodar, Kazakhstan [en], which he “was lucky enough” to have visited on a business trip earlier this year.

In preliminary voting [ru], Fedorov led Varlamov in support on LiveJournal, though the latter finished well ahead in the overall tally. If Varlamov indeed takes the nomination and registers to campaign officially in Omsk, will it signal a victory for the democratic process and a second wind for the opposition, or could it threaten to make a mockery of both?

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