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putin’s games

Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeny Roizman in his office. While he ran against Putin’s preferred candidate, he refrains from criticizing Mr. Putin personally. “I don’t envy him because I am aware of the problems he has to tackle, and I can’t predict what my actions would be in his place,” he says.JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

Part of Putin's Games, a series that examines what the Sochi Winter Olympics reveal about  Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Someone forgot to tell Yevgeny Roizman how a big city Russian mayor is supposed to behave.

In a country where meeting a senior official usually requires half a dozen phone calls and faxes – often with proposed questions submitted in advance for vetting –it's jarring when the newly elected boss of Russia's fourth-largest city tells a foreign journalist to drop by at their convenience. "You know where to find me," he says, referring to his office atop Yekaterinburg's ornate City Hall building, which still has the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union carved into its facade.

Mr. Roizman also missed the memo about the dress code. In a country full of charisma-free mayors in identical dark suits, the physically fit 51-year-old comes to work sporting a torso-hugging black T-shirt and blue jeans. There are no aides in his office handing him memos, no visible security personnel in the lobby.

He still looks and behaves like the rebel he was – a convicted con man turned social activist who shot to fame in Yekaterinburg through a controversial anti-drugs program – rather than the politician he's become.

Mr. Roizman also underplays the enormity of what he's accomplished: defeating President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party in an election last and so proving that democracy in the country – pronounced dead on several occasions since Mr. Putin came to power 15 years ago – still has a faint pulse after all.

Mr. Roizman's personal charisma and plain-talking style, as well as his deep roots in Yekaterinburg, helped him overcome massive institutional disadvantages to narrowly win the mayor's job last September. His opponent from United Russia had the backing of the Kremlin and its television stations. But Mr. Roizman had the affection of a city that has always had a soft spot for rebels.

Yekaterinburg, a city of 1.4 million people who live surrounded by aging factories on the border between Europe and Asia, was Boris Yeltsin's power base in the 1980s as he challenged the Politburo and shook the walls of the Soviet Union until they crumbled.

Mr. Roizman hints that he may also seek the national stage some day, claiming at one point to have millions of followers "around the country." But for now he's focused on overcoming a Yekaterinburg bureaucracy that has yet to adjust to the new mayor. He says his plans to "clean up" city government, plans he says are stalled by a system that gives the elected mayor less power than the unelected head of the bureaucracy, the city manager.

"I'm the Queen of England in terms of the decisions I can take … I have no power over finances," he complains bitterly. The two-headed power structure was designed "to prevent a strong individual from taking over the city." In other words, to prevent the rise of another Boris Yeltsin.

Since his election, Mr. Roizman has come under sharp attack from both the United Russia-controlled media and a court system known for persecuting the Kremlin's political opponents. In November, Mr. Roizman was put under investigation for damages allegedly done to a cathedral whose reparation he helped fund, a charge he dismisses as politically motivated. His campaign manager, journalist Aksana Panova (who is also well-known to be Mr. Roizman's girlfriend) was convicted last week of extortion – and handed an unheard-of sentence that included a ban on practising any kind of journalism for two years.

Yekaterinburg's new mayor has critics among his fellow social activists, who worry about his use of nationalist rhetoric. They also criticize the trampling of patients' rights at his City Without Drugs foundation where, until recently, drug abusers spent their first month of treatment chained to their beds and fed only small pieces of bread and onion.

While he pours scorn on the corruption and inertia that have overcome the Russian economy during the 15 years Mr. Putin has served as either president or prime minister, Mr. Roizman refrains from criticizing the President personally. "I don't envy him because I am aware of the problems he has to tackle, and I can't predict what my actions would be in his place."

Mr. Roizman actually doesn't like being referred to as a member of the country's political opposition. He ran for office under the banner of oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov's Civic Platform party. It's a movement that seeks to change Russia's political system from within – through evolution, rather than revolution.

It's a very different message than the one adopted by Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader who has led a series of angry street protests against Mr. Putin's rule. And while many in the anti-Putin opposition accuse Civic Platform of co-operating with the Kremlin, Mr. Roizman's victory – on the same day Mr. Navalny fell short in his own drive to be Moscow mayor – suggests the more moderate path may yield quicker results.

Mr. Roizman himself struggles to explain what his election victory means. He ponders in silence for half a minute when asked if Russia is a democracy. "It's a conditional democracy. We don't like the way it's going, but we still remember the [Soviet Union], so we know it could be worse," he finally says.

"We can still say and write what we think. We just can't use federal [TV] channels or media outlets to state what we think. I'm not going to complain while I still have the power to express myself."

Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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