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Brian Whitmore - RFE/RL - 4.11.12 - JRL 2012-68

Ilya Varlamov is heading to Omsk.

The popular Moscow-based photo blogger wrote on LiveJournal that he has been invited by the civic organization Citizen-Mayor to compete in online primaries this week to choose a unified opposition candidate for the Siberian city's June 17 mayoral elections. File Photo of Kremlin and Moscow Environs Aerial View
profile photo from

"At first glance, the idea seemed totally absurd. I was only in Omsk once in my whole life. I was born and lived my whole life in Moscow. My family and business are here. Running for mayor would be most atypical. But if I were to win the primary, we would have the most fun and noisy election campaign in the history of mayoral elections in Russia. We would bring issues like the urban environment in Russian cities and transparent governance to a whole new level."

The 26-year-old Varlamov -- who sports an unruly dark blonde afro and is known online by the handle "zyalt" -- would indeed make the Omsk race unconventional.

He has attracted a cult following in recent years blogging about street-level urban issues and has posted a 10-point plan to make Moscow a more livable city. In one recent photo-blogging campaign, for example, he publicly shamed Muscovites who illegally use handicapped parking spaces. He was also a founding member of the League of Voters.

But Varlamov's participation in the race isn't the only thing that makes the Omsk election worth watching. The primaries on April 13-16 run by Citizen-Mayor, an organization that grew out of grassroots election-monitoring efforts, is the latest example of opposition forces and civil society coming of age at the local level.

We saw a hint of this in Yaroslavl's mayoral election, in which a medley of opposition parties including Yabloko, the Communists, and A Just Russia coalesced around maverick city-council deputy Yevgeny Urlashov. The result was a landslide victory over the United Russia-backed candidate.

But the experiment in Omsk takes things to a whole new level. All of the candidates participating in the primaries -- and there are 24 of them -- have signed a pledge to back the winner in this summer's election. Organizers say the primary will boost public interest in the election campaign and serve as a way to introduce the eventual opposition candidate to the public.

"Why shouldn't we, the active citizens, promote a really independent modern candidate? A person, capable of responsibly representing the interests of all of the city's social classes -- most of all, the active citizens of Omsk; a person capable of seriously improving the social climate in the region," Citizen-Mayor activist Viktor Korb told RIA Novosti.

In a test vote conducted on April 10-11, Varlamov led, followed by Oleg Kostarev of the local branch of Yabloko, and Oleg Smolin, a State Duma deputy from the Communists.

United Russia has yet to announce a candidate, but press speculation has centered around current city-council Chairman Vyacheslav Dvorakovsky.

And Omsk should provide fertile ground for an insurgent opposition mayoral campaign. Like in Yaroslavl, United Russia fared poorly in the December 4