Yaroslavl Mayor Yevgeny Urlashov is escorted by police Wednesday. (Anna Solovyova / Associated…)
MOSCOW — Yevgeny Urlashov, the maverick opposition mayor of the Russian regional capital of Yaroslavl, was detained by armed and masked police officers Wednesday morning for allegedly soliciting bribes.
Urlashov, 45, embarrassed the Kremlin in April 2012 when, supported by opposition parties, he defeated the ruling United Russia party mayoral candidate. He gained almost 70% of the vote in the industrial city of about 600,000 people.
Political experts still regard that surprising victory as the only opposition success and about the only major political setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin on the provincial level since he won a third term in March 2012.
Urlashov and three subordinates are accused of demanding a bribe of about $425,000 from a road construction company, said Kristina Guzovskaya, a spokeswoman for the Yaroslavl branch of the Russian Investigative Committee, in televised remarks.
She said the businessman paid the sum to a middleman, who brought the money to a designated location where police intervened.
Urlashov was taken into custody when he was returning home from a business meeting. Police said they found $1 million in cash, which they suspect belongs to the mayor, in a neighbor's apartment, Rossiya 24 television said.
Urlashov denied the accusations, calling them “politically motivated.” He noted that they were made after he refused to accept shoddy repair and cleaning work by the company.
“They have been trying for a whole year to set me up with taking a bribe,” Urlashov told reporters when police escorted him home for a search of his apartment. “They are simply trying to remove me from the mayoral position.”
Urlashov has been under pressure since heavy rains caused serious flooding in the city this year and city lawmakers voted his work unsatisfactory. Charismatic as an opposition leader, Urlashov has at times appeared overwhelmed by his responsibilities as mayor, one supporter said.
“The popular support for Urlashov in the city has been gradually dwindling too in recent months,” the supporter, Andrei Chekanov, regional coordinator for the opposition party December 5th, said in a telephone interview with the Times.
“I must admit there is no smoke without fire, and at the very least Urlashov should have been most careful not to get set up like this, given the known negative attitude to him on the part of the Kremlin,” Chekanov added.
Russian tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, who owns the Brooklyn Nets of the National Basketball Assn. and heads the Russian opposition Civic Platform party, called Urlashov’s arrest “a blow to human rights and freedoms of every citizen of Russia.”
“Whatever the authorities might suspect Yevgeny Urlashov of, he is not a terrorist and not on the federal wanted list,” Prokhorov tweeted Wednesday. “It is quite obvious that the night masked show with dragging a man out of his car is organized with the sole purpose of scaring Yevgeny [Urlashov] … and also all independent politicians and active ordinary citizens of Russia.”
Urlashov was planning to lead the local branch of the Civic Platform in regional legislative elections scheduled for Sept. 8.
“The game is far from being over, and I should be ready for more provocations and attempts to set me up as I assume this new role,” Urlashov told the Times last year shortly after his mayoral victory. “I know it is going to be tough but I think I am ready for any challenge now.”