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Acting locally
Activists are taking on United Russia officials on a district level
Anna Arutunyan - Moscow News - themoscownews.com - 3.22.12 - JRL 2012-55

Forget the battle for the Kremlin ­ with protest sentiment cooling down, local politics in Russia are heating up. And a host of young, sometimes radical new municipal councilmembers are defying baffled United Russia bureaucrats.

With so many young independents, it's anything but business as usual for the once sleepy local legislatures where politics rarely used to get more exciting than funding a local playground. Less than two weeks after the elections, the battle for who will chair these councils ­ a person loyal to old-school United Russia deputies or some new blood ­ is on.

And a group of new deputies petitioned Moscow's City Council this week to wrest more powers from appointed municipal officials ­ and form a civil movement that will boost their influence as municipal deputies, Kommersant reports.

"We only have two independent deputies, but we're already seeing intrigue," Vera Kichanova, a independent municipal deputy in Moscow's South Tushino district, told The Moscow News. "People are calling each other, asking who they should vote for." An elfin, 20-year-old journalism student who started out as a libertarian activist, Kichanova surprised herself when she won a municipal deputy post ­ and became a poster child for the new municipals.

"I would go to these protests, and reasonable people would tell me ­ 'it's easy to be critical, but why don't you try to do something?' I wanted to prove to myself that it was possible to change something on the municipal level at least."

Now Kichanova is being fingered as a possible member of the notorious Pussy Riot group, whose two members are facing seven years in jail for singing an anti-Putin song in Christ the Savior Cathedral.

Kichanova said she had no part in the flash mob and is not a member of the group, though she is friends with one of its leaders. But she is not surprised that the pressure is coming from pro-Kremlin commentators.

"I don't think this is connected to my municipal activities. But they could use this to pressure me out of foolishness," she said, adding that she hoped the accusations wouldn't go any further than a blog post on Livejournal.

For Kichanova and nearly 500 people like her in districts all over Moscow, the fight is no longer in the streets ­ it's now about reaching a compromise with conformist officials who are used to taking orders from City Hall.

In nearly 20 districts in Moscow, independent candidates outnumbered those from United Russia ­ bringing their monopoly on decision-making under question.

"United Russia isn't used to working with competition. And their only option in this case will be to compromise ­ to agree to have a chairman from the independent camp," Konstantin Yankauskas, an activist of the oppositionist Solidarnost group, told The Moscow News.

On March 4, Yankauskas became one of three independent candidates to join the local council in the district of Zyuzino. "For the first time in the history of our district we had the chance to elect the chairman of the local council, it was for real,"

But while opportunities are improving in districts where independents have at least half the seats, United Russia is looking increasingly likely to up the pressure and ge