(Bloomberg) -- Though it’s 1,100 miles east of Moscow, Yekaterinburg has played an outsized role in Russian history. Next month, as it hosts four World Cup games, the nation’s fourth-largest city will gain renown again as global media and thousands of soccer fans descend on its rebuilt stadium.
What they may discover is that this city of 1.4 million has become a microcosm of Russia’s growing political strife.
Protests have filled Yekaterinburg’s streets more than once this year. Thousands demonstrated against President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration, just as they did when the government moved to push out the city’s leader—the last independently elected mayor in Russia. Yevgeny Roizman, a pugnacious opponent of Putin, had been fighting to stay relevant despite having lost his executive powers.
While most mayors would be elated to host the World Cup, Roizman considered it a waste of money and a distraction. This week, rather than wait until his term ends in September, he quit in very public fashion—at a city council meeting—and later in a speech on Youtube.
Yekaterinburg’s independent mayor set it apart from other Russian cities, said political consultant Sergey Moshkin. When Boris Yeltsin was president, the city reveled in its maverick reputation. That ended under Putin, as he built what’s been called “the vertical of power.” In 2010, regional authorities controlled by his United Russia party made the mayor’s office ceremonial. Power reverted to a city manager and the regional governor, a Putin appointee who went on to win a regional election from which Roizman, like Alexey Navalny in the March presidential election, was barred.
On May 5, some 5,000 city residents led by Roizman joined an unauthorized march as part of national protests against Putin. But demonstrations notwithstanding, Yekaterinburg has been scrambling to prepare for the World Cup, including rebuilding its old stadium with outsized seating extensions. Russia is spending $11 billion on the games, a sum Roizman said is being used to distract from Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, intervention in Syria, interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and economic problems at home.
There’s a “gross underfunding of everything” in Russia, he said, from hospitals to roads and housing infrastructure. Plus, Roizman added, “you can’t have the World Cup and keep flattening Syria, all at the same time, since the latter discredits the former."
During the Russian empire, Yekaterinburg served as a strategic outpost for eastward expansion. Later, it witnessed the Romanovs’ brutal execution at the hands of the Bolsheviks. After the Soviet Union dissolved, the city became a hotbed of organized crime—a section of one of its cemeteries is famously filled with gaudy tributes to dead mob bosses. Over the past decade, it’s been a center of the synthetic opioid epidemic called “Krokodil,” and in April, it figured in the news with the death of an investigative journalist who had been pursuing alleged Russian mercenary groups in Syria.
When Putin came to power in 1999, there were dozens of strong mayors across Russia. By 2013, the year Roizman was elected, only three were left. One of them was jailed, a second forced out. On April 2, the legislative assembly for the Sverdlovsk region, of which Yekaterinburg is capital, voted to end direct mayoral elections in the city. Instead, the mayor was to be elected by deputies from a list drawn up by a Kremlin-appointed commission. The Sverdlovsk Region branch of Putin’s United Russia party, which controls the assembly, declined to comment.
Political consultant Anatoly Gagarin, deputy head of the Sverdlovsk region Public Chamber—a Kremlin-controlled body of nongovernmental organizations and other civic groups—said “unmanageable mayors” have “led to conflicts and lost opportunities.” He’s dismissive of Roizman’s supporters: “On the one hand, they say that officials should act like hired servicemen; on the other hand, they want a strong mayor with surreal executive authority.”
He conceded that the move to cancel elections wasn’t properly explained to voters, apart from pro-Kremlin deputies saying it would save money and that popularly elected mayors are less competent than those selected by the government.
Roizman, 55, hasn’t shied away from some strong-arm tactics of his own. Before running for mayor, he led a campaign to rid Yekaterinburg of drug users, including forced isolation of heroin addicts, who were sometimes chained to radiators. Roizman remains unapologetic. “We saved thousands of lives,” he said, rejecting critics as people “who strive to look kind at someone else’s expense.” His anti-drug foundation made him a local hero to some, providing a springboard to political office.
But left with little real power, he sought to make use of his office as the ultimate retail politician.
Just last month, dozens lined up to see him in the ornate, Stalin-era municipal building. A mother of four adopted children wanted to move out of her derelict building but was afraid to go through channels, lest the state take her kids away. Next came an old woman who said her neighbors were regularly beating her and stealing her money. A young man said his wife is in jail for fraud and separated from their two small daughters; the youngest is a six-month-old toddler with a heart defect who rejects replacement milk.
Roizman, a tall, muscular man, exploded: “They give year-long postponements to murderers and drug dealers in same circumstances! Why not to her?” He made a flurry of calls, and soon a prominent lawyer showed up to help with his wife’s case.
There were less harrowing requests. An 82-year-old woman whose husband has prostate cancer said they would like to go on a seaside vacation for the first time in their lives. Roizman quickly posted her story on Facebook, and after about five minutes someone offered to sponsor them on a trip. By 5 p.m., he had received roughly 80 visitors. In his speech on Tuesday, announcing his resignation, he pledged to continue this practice.
“He is Yekaterinburg’s conscience,” local talk show radio host Denis Kamenshchikov said before Roizman quit. Travel entrepreneur Konstantin Brylyakov called him “Yekaterinburg’s vox populi,” while Ivan Badanov, whose hardware business recently folded, said “Roizman is the only man you can actually talk to in the whole government.” Badanov, though he supports Putin’s military endeavors abroad, bemoaned Russia’s economic slump and blamed regional authorities for his misfortune. He said he’d vote for Roizman in any election to any office.
“He has many more supporters than the authorities presume,” Badanov said.
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