Crooks, Thieves and the Independent Mayors Who Run Russia

The mayor of Yaroslavl and several of his colleagues will spend the next two months behind bars on extortion charges. Evgeny Urlashov, a former United Russia member who ran as an opposition-friendly independent, won the mayor’s seat roughly a year ago in a highly publicized election that seemed to mark a highpoint in the 2011-2012-winter protest movement. In the midnight hours, earlier this week on July 3, 2013, federal investigators arrested Urlashov and searched his home [ru]. According to some reports, over half a million dollars [ru] was hidden in his neighbor’s apartment, though leaked scans [ru] of the police search records call into question this claim.

Since Urlashov’s arrest and a subsequent court decision to keep him incarcerated until early September, many Russians have wrestled with what they perceive as the mounting evidence of their political system’s inability to tolerate an even slightly empowered opposition. For Muscovites especially, where many anti-Putin-leaning voters are rooting for blogger-turned-politician Alexey Navalny’s mayoral campaign, Urlashov’s fate seems to capture the futility of “changing the system from within.” Bonds such as these help explain why Navalny himself, blogging [ru] from the courtroom floor of his own “show trial” in Kirov, called on Yaroslavl’s denizens to attend a demonstration in support of Urlashov, held the day after his arrest.

Evgeny Urlashov at arraignment, Yaroslavl, Russia, 4 July 2013, screenshot from YouTube.

Evgeny Urlashov at arraignment, Yaroslavl, Russia, 4 July 2013, screenshot from YouTube.

Urlashov’s supposed extortion ring amounts to a rather odd criminal enterprise. According to audio and video [ru] surveillance footage (leaked by investigators to the Kremlin-connected [ru] online tabloid, Urlashov is guilty of soliciting and receiving bribes from two local businessmen, both of whom are registered members of United Russia. In other words, police claim that Urlashov approached his political enemies [ru] and demanded kickbacks, effectively handing his rivals the means to destroy him.

Shortly after Urlashov’s arrest, a video (see below) surfaced on YouTube depicting the arrest of the Mayor’s alleged bagman in the bribery gang. Oleg Kozyrev captured the amusement of many when he described [ru] the “tears of emotion” that swelled in his eyes upon noting that police placed a purse under the head of the man being arrested, granting him a pillow presumably to make his detention more comfortable. “Yes, if only they’d arrest me like that!” he exclaimed ironically. Kozyrev’s insinuation, presumably, was that investigators were arresting one of their own—a plant, posing as Urlashov’s crony—in order to frame Yaroslavl’s troublesome mayor for extortion.

In a separate LiveJournal post [ru], however, Anton Tolmachev conducted a frame-by-frame analysis of the video, concluding that the bagman likely used his own purse as a pillow, and that police only later introduced the incriminating suitcase full of money. (The dialogue [ru] following the arrest suggests, oddly, that the suspect had previously confessed to transporting the ill-gotten cash.)

Over the last year [ru], Urlashov has feuded increasingly with Yaroslavl’s governor, Sergey Yastrebov. Even before his arrest last week, Urlashov had faced a police search of his car in March 2013, and United-Russia-led vote of no confidence from the city’s municipal council in June. The last few months have featured a zigzag of political setbacks for the mayor and his expanded appeals to the protest movement, which culminated in a June 19 demonstration speech, where Urlashov pledged [ru] to unseat Yastrebov as governor.

Skeptics see in Urlashov’s history the record of a political opportunist. Journalist and former activist Anastasia Karimova took issue with a Facebook post [ru] by Alexander Baunov, who argued that the arrest of Yaroslavl’s mayor is part of a larger crackdown on Russia’s opposition. “Personally, I don’t consider Urlashov to be an oppositionist,” Karimova responded [ru], citing several examples of his willingness in the past to speak kindly of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, his openness to collaborating with members of United Russia, and the apparently “managed news” environment Urlashov has instituted in Yaroslavl, since becoming mayor. (Indeed, some of the mayor’s supporters, like Vladimir Milov [ru], have also faulted Urlashov for replicating to his own advantage in Yaroslavl the kind of television censorship commonly attributed to United Russia throughout the rest of Russia.)

Alexey Roshchin authored what is perhaps the RuNet’s most existential reflection on Urlashov’s situation, offering an elaborate analogy [ru] to the lives of Soviet grocers. According to Roshchin, the public expects more from contemporary Russian mayors than federal funding realities allow them to provide. Comparatively, in Soviet times, grocers were expected to peddle food supplies that were typically 90% unmarketable. In other words, grocers were forced to cheat the public by selling them rotten goods, or risk being accused of embezzling whatever food they couldn’t hawk. All this bred a culture of deceit, necessitated by the shortcomings of the USSR’s centralized economy. In Russia today, political centralization has reproduced that culture in mayors, Roshchin argues:

Конечно, они воровали и воруют! Если мэр ОБЪЕКТИВНО вынужден, скажем, формировать свой «фонд черного нала» для решения НАСУЩНЫХ городских проблем – понятно, что рано или поздно он станет брать из этого «фонда» и на свои собственные нужды. Но печальная правда в том, что если он принципиально НЕ БУДЕТ формировать такой фонд (или еще как-то ловчить с деньгами и «откатами») – у него в городе все просто встанет. Или, выражаясь менее изящно – город просто утонет в говне и мусоре.

Of course [mayors] stole and are stealing! If a mayor OBJECTIVELY needs, let’s say, to form his own “slush fund” to solve the city’s vital problems, it’s clear that sooner or later he’s going to take from this “fund” some money for himself. But the sad truth is that, if he NEVER formed such a fund (or never worked his way to kickbacks of some kind), everything in town would just come to a standstill. Or, to put it less elegantly, the city would simply drown in s**t and trash.


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