Yevgeny Urlashov, an independent mayoral candidate supported by the Russian… (Sergei L. Loiko /, Los Angeles…)
MOSCOW — In a sign that Russia's ruling party will face greater challenges when Vladimir Putin begins his third term as president, an independent candidate supported by the opposition won a landslide victory in a weekend mayoral election.
The preliminary results announced Monday in the runoff election gave Yevgeny Urlashov, a charismatic 44-year-old lawyer, about 70% of the vote in the city of Yaroslavl, about 150 miles northeast of Moscow. He defeated a local tycoon from Putin's United Russia party.
"My victory proves beyond any doubt that people are tired of rule by the corrupt bureaucracy and that they want changes," Urlashov said in a phone interview Monday. "They are fed up with the imitation of democracy imposed from above."
Urlashov's victory was overseen by several hundred election observers from Moscow, representing independent agencies and opposition parties.
Observers noted that it was a tough campaign for the winner. Urlashov was largely denied time on local television. Threats by phone, email and other sources were a constant feature of the campaign. In late February, shortly before the first-round vote, the car of a key campaign aide was torched.
Shortly after that round, in which Urlashov beat the runner-up by a significant margin but fell short of the requirement that he garner more than 50% of the vote, a lawsuit was filed seeking to disqualify the front-runner on a technicality.
Two weeks before Sunday's election, ruling party candidate Yakov Yakushev was appointed deputy mayor. The next day the mayor went on leave, making Yakushev the city's acting chief.
"Yakushev's men went house to house canvassing, compelling residents to cast their ballots in favor of the United Russia candidate, offering people 200 rubles [$7] per vote," said Andrei Chekanov, regional coordinator of the opposition Solidarity movement.
"There are so many scoundrels in power here and we trust Urlashov to purge them," Lyubov Bogova, a 42-year-old cook at a downtown Yaroslavl kindergarten, said in a telephone interview. "It should come as a lesson to the Kremlin that Putin has his last chance to set things straight in the country."
Putin, who served as president from 2000 to 2008 and has been prime minister for the last four years, received 54% of the vote in Yaroslavl during last month's presidential balloting, 10 percentage points less than he got nationwide.
Urlashov's election suggests that Putin and his team may have increasing difficulty controlling elections in the provinces outside Moscow, a pro-Kremlin political expert said.
"The Kremlin remains the biggest player in the market of provincial elections, but to preserve its leadership it needs to make its policy more efficient as the threat of opposition and independent figures coming to power in the provinces is growing," said Dmitry Orlov, director-general of the Agency of Political and Economic Communications, a Moscow-based think tank. "As the predictability of these processes continues to dwindle, Putin will face a tougher time in office than before."
For his part, Urlashov said there are signs that Putin is distancing himself from the ruling party, which appears to be losing popularity.
"I am grateful to the Kremlin for not interfering in the Yaroslavl mayoral vote," Urlashov said. "As United Russia is sinking deeper and deeper into oblivion, it is time for Putin to become the president of the entire people rather than of a large group of corrupt officials."
After a series of protests that rocked the country in recent months, parliament last month passed a law making it easier for political parties to register.
In February, a measure allowing direct elections of regional governors was passed in the first reading. The Kremlin decided not to wait for that bill to become law and in recent weeks replaced several governors in key provinces.
"The recent opposition rallies scared Putin, though not enough," said Gennady Gudkov, an opposition leader and deputy chairman of the Security Committee in the lower house of parliament. He promised that the opposition's struggle for change would intensify after Putin's inauguration.
Putin's reaction to the results in Yaroslavl was not known Monday. However, his spokesman discounted suggestions from Urlashov and others that Putin should become a president for all Russians.
"With 64% of the national vote in his favor, Vladimir Vladimirovich is already the president of the entire people," said Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.