Disgust fills Mikhail Mulenkov’s voice when he talks about politics. But life became so tough in his town in central Russia, he says, that he was “forced” to run for city council last year. Much to his surprise, he won a seat.
“This wasn’t my success, it was a protest by the people,” says Mulenkov, 37, who works in a building management company in Pereslavl-Zalessky. “People here hate the government because of the pension reform, because it’s cold in their homes during the winter and because garbage is being dumped here and even more landfills are planned.”
Perched on a lake and graced by onion-domed Orthodox churches, Pereslavl-Zalessky, 90 miles northeast of Moscow, is hardly a hotbed of opposition politics. Yet as Russian President Vladimir Putin approaches his 20th year in power, anger over bread-and-butter issues is sparking protests across the country. Even in sleepy Pereslavl-Zalessky, population 40,000, locals no longer hide their frustration with the powers that be.
After last year’s city council election in Pereslavl-Zalessky, the ruling United Russia Party’s majority slipped to a single vote. The party has become so unpopular nationally that Putin ran for reelection as an independent last year. In upcoming Moscow city council elections, United Russia members have abandoned the party ticket and registered as independents.
Protests have broken out in Moscow after election officials barred opposition candidates from the city council ballot. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was jailed for 30 days on Wednesday after calling on protesters to continue demonstrating.
A father of two, Mulenkov is dismissive of Navalny. Mulenkov doesn’t call himself an opposition politician but just a concerned “local resident.” The main issue for him is the town’s inability to maintain the public utility that provides heating to the community. Further irritants are last year’s raising of the retirement age and plans to dump Moscow’s garbage on the outskirts of town.
“I couldn’t care less about politics,” he says. “I just want things in our town to be OK. I’m not asking for wonderful, beautiful or super. I’m fine with OK.”
With its rich history and picturesque setting, Pereslavl-Zalessky has untapped potential as a tourist destination. But years of mismanagement and economic decline have led to an exodus of young people to cities like Moscow.
Mulenkov insists his ire is directed at local officials — not at Putin, who, he says, has done a lot for the country.
In Russia there’s an expression for that kind of thinking: The czar is good; the noblemen are bad.
But Natalya Vlasova, a local blogger and activist, says that Russians are slowly making the connection between Putin and his top-down system of political management called the “power vertical.”
“People are beginning to connect the dots, namely that things are so bad here not because the local authorities work poorly, but because they’re put in that situation by the federal government — because the rot starts from the top,” she says.
There’s tension over a host of unresolved issues, she says, from out-of-town mayors imposed by the regional government to the monopoly on waste management by a company owned by the son of Russia’s chief prosecutor.
Pereslavl-Zalessky Mayor Valery Astrakhantsev turned down a request for an interview.
At a recent rally in the town’s unkempt Victory Park, several hundred people turned up to protest the planned landfills and a 27% hike in garbage collection fees. It was the third demonstration this year against the dumps.
Vlasova climbed onto the rickety stage and compared the townspeople of Pereslavl-Zalessky with the 14 Russian sailors who died in a naval accident earlier this month.
“Nobody can hear us,” she said. “Our country’s leadership is basking in the sun on their cruise ship, while we’re trapped in a submarine suffocating as they take our resources, our health, our rights and our freedom.”
Mikhail Kazinets, who runs a local factory that makes Christmas tree ornaments, agrees with Vlasova that the Kremlin is to blame.
“If they haven’t been able to solve problems like garbage removal or utilities in 20 years, then what problems can they solve?” he says. “The wrong people are leading the country. They’ve never run a factory or started a business. They haven’t done anything but rob the country.”
Marina Stoyan, a teacher at a technical school, shares that anger but holds the regional governor responsible, not the Kremlin.
“Who else is there besides Putin? Nobody. We’re all for Putin,” she says. “We don’t see any other alternatives yet.”
Stoyan says she voted for Putin last year and considers him a good politician, especially when it comes to international relations.
A supporter of opposition leader Navalny, factory director Kazinets admits that he’s in the minority.
“Yes we’re in the minority, but this minority can easily inspire the whole crowd to rise up,” he says. “Right now anybody can come to power and we’ll live better. You understand? Anybody.”