The popular mayor of the Volga industrial city of Yaroslavl, Yevgeny Urlashov, has been detained on suspicion of corruption and extortion, just a few months before he was to head an opposition ticket in upcoming regional elections. Mr. Urlashov insisted Wednesday in an interview with the Internet TV station Dozhd that the charges against him are politically motivated. “I had been warned that they would get me out of the picture by any means possible,” he said. The Kremlin’s Investigative Committee said he and two aides are under suspicion of soliciting a $425,000 bribe from a private company in exchange for lucrative contracts to perform municipal services. Urlashov says his accuser is a prominent member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. Urlashov left United Russia in 2011, complaining of the party’s high-handed tactics, and joined the Civic Platform party led by liberal billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Running as an independent in the April 2012 mayoral polls in Yaroslavl, he overwhelmingly defeated the Kremlin’s chosen candidate, Yakov Yakushev, with almost 70 percent of the vote.
That electoral upset triggered alarm bells in United Russia headquarters, and put authorities on notice that pro-Kremlin candidates are vulnerable to defeat – despite the concentration of official resources deployed on their behalf in Russia’s system of “managed democracy” – especially when the opposition is well organized and fields an experienced and capable candidate.
Russian news reports say Urlashov was detained at a police checkpoint on Tuesday night. Plainclothes officers dragged him from his car and placed him in detention before proceeding to search his home and offices. He was expected to head Civic Platform’s candidate list for the regional legislature in September.
“Putin’s regime has consistently tried to avoid overtly pressuring and prosecuting people for being political adversaries,” says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center’s Pro et Contra journal.
Instead, she says, the government has become a “mastermind of selective law enforcement,” using anti-corruption charges to hobble opposition figures, creating and changing the law at will to service its attacks.