MOSCOW — In Russia, where all governors and mayors are either Kremlin nominees or hail from Kremlin-friendly parties, Yevgeny Roizman cuts an odd figure.
The mayor of Yekaterinburg, Russia‘s fourth-largest city with 1.4 million people, is the only top regional official to openly criticize President Vladimir Putin. He has also called for a boycott of Sunday‘s presidential vote, a move advocated by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is banned from running.
Yet Roizman still epitomizes the helplessness of Russia‘s opposition in the face of Putin‘s well-oiled government machine.
Roizman is an outlier in Putin‘s system of government, where every official — from a village chief to the governor — explicitly answers to and serves the Russian president.
While millions of public workers are busy rooting for Putin and urging residents to vote, Roizman has dismissed the presidential vote as sham.
“You can ask anyone and everyone will tell you who is going to win this election. What‘s the point in going to vote then?” he told The Associated Press.
But making public statements is the only thing Roizman is free to do. In the president‘s “power vertical,” as Putin once named it, if those who oppose him are not already sidelined or jailed, they simply have no executive powers or budgets to take on the Kremlin.
A former convict and leader of a vigilante anti-drug movement, 55-year-old Roizman might seem unelectable. But in his hometown of Yekaterinburg in the Urals, he won a tight mayoral race against a pro-government candidate in 2013.
A visitor to Roizman‘s office is immediately struck by the glaring absence of the one requisite symbol of power in Russia: a portrait of Putin. On his first day, Roizman hung a portrait of dissident poet Josef Brodsky. His office is open, and his hour-long interview with the AP was interrupted when a retiree stepped in to complain about his low pension.
When Roizman ran for office, one of his campaign promises was to improve the quality of water in this industrial city. But once elected, Roizman realized he was unable to do that.
“I have no budget to spend,” Roizman said. “The city has been stripped of its major powers, its major sources of income.”
Like other regional capitals, Yekaterinburg in the 2000s fell victim to Putin‘s “power vertical” concept, which was presented as an antidote to lawlessness and the lack of coordination between the federal government and regional authorities.
But in the end, that policy simply forced Russian regions to send most of their revenues to Moscow. Now they receive back only a fraction. The system was supposed to help economically struggling regions like the North Caucasus, but it has angered wealthier cities like Yekaterinburg and Kazan, which feel they are paying for corruption and mismanagement several time zones away.
Roizman‘s background reflects Russia‘s ups and downs since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. He spent more than two years in prison in the 1980s for robbery and fraud, something he describes as a youthful mistake.
After stints making jewelry and researching local history, Roizman made his name by forming a volunteer group to stem a drug epidemic in the Urals. Official estimates in 2003 put the number of drug users in this region of 4 million at 235,000 people.
“We had a drug catastrophe,” Roizman recalled. “Ambulances were driving around picking up corpses from the sidewalks.”
Yekaterinburg, which still has some of Russia‘s highest HIV rates because of the ‘90s drug epidemic, lies on the drug route that ran from Afghanistan and Central Asia to Europe. It‘s about 1,050 miles (1,700 kilometers) east of Moscow. He says the police were at best helpless to deal with the drug dealers, and at worst profiting from the drug business.
Roizman and his colleagues began to track down and round up drug dealers and set up private rehab clinics to which desperate families sent their addicted relatives. Many credit the City Without Drugs foundation for fighting Russia‘s narcotics epidemic, but others remember reports of drug users locked up in rehab clinics against their will.
Roizman vehemently denies any wrongdoing and says he saved the lives of “thousands.”
His 2013 win was also improbable because of his scathing criticism of the Kremlin.
Bashing the Kremlin from the sidelines is dangerous, but doing so within the system is almost impossible. Two other regional opposition leaders have been imprisoned on charges seen as retribution for their lack of compliance.
Nikita Belykh, former governor of the Kirov region who once employed Navalny as an unpaid aide, was arrested and sentenced this year to eight years in a high-security prison for accepting 600,000 euros ($740,000) in bribes.
Yevgeny Urlashov, who won a landslide victory in Yaroslavl‘s mayoral race in 2012, was arrested a year later and spent three years in jail before being found guilty of accepting bribes and sent to prison for 12 1/2 years.
The popular Urlashov, who criticized the federal government for taking away the city‘s taxes, posed a tangible threat to the Kremlin, Roizman said, because he convinced supporters to take to the streets.
“That scared them,” Roizman said.
Urlashov would not cooperate with local pro-Kremlin elites, so Moscow retaliated by cutting back the city‘s budget. A year later, the mayor was slapped with bribery charges that many considered fabricated.
Roizman was going to run for governor of the Yekaterinburg region last year, a position that would give him a budget to spend, but he failed to gain enough required votes from local pro-Kremlin lawmakers to field his candidacy.
Roizman says he‘s glad he didn‘t get to run and win because of the inevitable Faustian bargains that he says all Russian politicians face under Putin. What would happen, he asks, if Kremlin authorities summoned him and offered to build the city a second subway line in exchange for his public support of the presidential election?
“What would I do?” Roizman said. “I‘m ashamed to say it but I know what I would do: I would cast my eye and say ‘Everyone should to go to vote.‘ I would trade it for the second metro line.”
Now, in a visible though largely powerless position, the only thing left for Roizman to do is “stay true to myself” and call for a boycott of Sunday‘s presidential election.
“There will never be a fair election under this government,” he said. “They have only one goal: to stay in power forever.”