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United Russia Claims Independent Irkutsk Mayor

Irkutsk Mayor Viktor Kondrashov. He said he was ready to join United Russia to help solve Irkutsk's problems. Irkutsk City Hall

IRKUTSK — Three months ago, Viktor Kondrashov's election as mayor of this sprawling Siberian city was widely seen as a humiliating defeat for United Russia, which backed another candidate.

Today, United Russia says he's theirs.

United Russia announced on its web site this week that Kondrashov had become a political supporter of the ruling party and was likely to join in six months.

Kondrashov, 48, told The Moscow Times that he was ready to join the party to help solve Irkutsk's problems.

“If I see that it is important for Irkutsk's well-being, then I would make my decision on party affiliation,” Kondrashov said in an interview last week in his modest office in Irkutsk, a city of 594,000 people just north of the Chinese border.

Kondrashov, who worked as an engineer, a tailor and even a part-time male model in a local fashion house in the mid-1980s, rose to prominence as the successful owner of the local Takota holding, which included a construction company, a supermarket and a human resources agency, before delving into politics.

He won a mayoral election in March as an independent backed by the local Communists, whom he had financed in the past.

Political commentators said Kondrashov's victory was largely a protest vote against his rival, Sergei Serebrennikov, an outsider aggressively promoted by United Russia.

Sergei Levchenko, leader of the Irkutsk Communists and a State Duma deputy, said Wednesday that he would not comment on Kondrashov's decision to join United Russia before he spoke to him in person. ? 

“I cannot comment on rumors, even those posted on United Russia's web site,” Levchenko said.

The possibility of Kondrashov joining United Russia surprised many of his supporters, but there had been indications that the new mayor would distance himself from the opposition.

Kondrashov stayed away from an opposition-organized rally in Irkutsk in March calling for the closure of a Soviet-era paper mill that critics say is polluting Lake Baikal, the world's largest fresh water lake and a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Irkutsk region.

“He could have come and stayed for five minutes to show his support,” said Yury Kurin, former Irkutsk region deputy governor and the local leader of the Solidarity opposition movement.

The rally was attended by senior Solidarity members, including former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who flew in from Moscow.

Kondrashov told The Moscow Times that he supports any helpful opposition initiative that did not violate the law. ? 

“Let them come up with solutions to problems," he said. "But if the problem is recognized by the authorities, then I don't see any sense in them demanding the same thing day after day."

Independent-minded officials generally become less tolerant of the opposition once they get involved with United Russia, said Alexei Mukhin, an analyst at the Center for Political Information. “This party doesn’t accept liberalism. You have to follow the party line,” he said.

He said that by joining United Russia, Kondrashov would “easily access the career ladder” as a party bureaucrat.

“He is a businessman, and he is pragmatic. But if a businessman were driven by ideology, his business would collapse,” said Alexander Kynev, a regional policy expert.

In the interview, Kondrashov reiterated his election campaign platform that he wanted to bring more businesspeople into the city administration to make it more effective and less corrupt.

“I faced the situation myself when I was on the other side of barricades,” he said bitterly. “I came to the conclusion that the administration needs people who haven’t worked with bureaucrats. Those people have horse blinders on their eyes.”

But Kondrashov has made no major reshuffles, limiting himself to two new City Hall appointments: Boris Vinogradov, rector of a local private law school, became his deputy, and Oleg Shandruk, who served under his predecessor, was appointed head of the utilities department.

A source close to the new administration said that firing the old team was not Kondrashov's style and that he would work with anyone he considered a professional. “They will be given time to adjust to the new rules,” the source said, asking for anonymity to speak candidly about the inner workings of the administration.

Kondrashov and Samara Mayor Viktor Tarkhov are the only mayors of Russia's 83 regional capitals who are not affiliated with United Russia.

But controlling every city in the country remains challenging for United Russia. Alexander Serov, another independent candidate backed by the Communists, won the mayoral election in the city of Bratsk in the Irkutsk region in May.

Alarmed by the development, United Russia deputies in the region's legislature have drawn up an initiative to abolish mayoral elections, proposing that mayors be replaced with “city managers” appointed by municipal councils, which are controlled by United Russia.

The move may save the party from possible embarrassment in the next big mayoral election in the Irkutsk region, scheduled for September in Angarsk.

Kondrashov criticized the idea to abolish mayoral elections. ? 

“We are told that this measure bars people with criminal connections from coming to power. But with time, people will lose the ability to express their own will,” he said.

Kondrashov himself keeps close contact with voters, including with his LiveJournal blog, on which he boasted that he spent his first month's salary as mayor on the purchase of two flat-screen televisions for orphanages.

Kondrashov's sometimes blatant self-promotion on his blog has led to criticism of his populism from local bloggers. But Kondrashov, who conceded that some of his posts could be interpreted as populist, said such openness was exactly what people wanted from him.

“Authorities should serve the people's interests, and this is not difficult for me to do,” he said.

But Kondrashov has dodged bitter questions on his blog about his affiliation with United Russia.

“It is like a slap in the face of voters who mistook the wrong person for the hero in a fairy tale,” one Irkutsk resident wrote on Kondrashov’s blog this week.

“Some of his voters will be disappointed," said Kurin of Solidarity. "But they don’t have any influence over him, and United Russia has all the power here."

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