RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Author)
On January 10, the popular mayor of the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk, Sardana Avksentyeva, wrote on social media that she was submitting her resignation because “my family is seriously worried about my health.”
“I have to admit that I can no longer work 24/365,” she wrote. “Tomorrow I am checking into the hospital and soon I will have an operation.”
She ended her message by saying: “I beg you not to dramatize the situation. There are no irreplaceable people, and the history of Yakutsk is measured in centuries. Remain a thoughtful, independent, and kind city. I am proud of you.”
The same day, Avksentyeva’s spokesman, Aleksei Tolstyakov, told journalists that the mayor was under no pressure to step aside.
“I want to emphasize that this decision was made without the involvement of outside parties and no one exerted any pressure on the city’s leader,” he said.
Immediately, however, many observers commented with their suspicions that Avksentyeva had been forced out.
“I know exactly the real reason why you are leaving,” one person commented on Avksentyeva’s post. “It is completely logical that health problems have emerged. You were driven out, subject to threats and constantly confronted with obstacles about which only you know everything. Our thieving authorities cannot stand to be near an honest and principled mayor who was working for the benefit of the people.”
Business journalist Maksim Tovkailo told RFE/RL he believes “political pressure” played a role in Avksentyeva’s decision.
“I think that fatigue from fighting simply to work and fatigue from the pressure were the main reasons why she is resigning,” he said. “Whatever health reasons there may be were simply an excuse.”
Yakutsk is a city of some 310,000 people in eastern Siberia that's almost 5,000 kilometers east of Moscow and is the capital of the diamond-producing Sakha Republic. Avksentyeva's resignation comes in the context of preparations for the election of Russia’s lower parliament house, the State Duma, which must be held by mid-September of this year.
President Vladimir Putin’s personal popularity rating is in decline and the ruling United Russia party is widely reviled around the country. So Kremlin political strategists are reportedly preparing the ground for a tough campaign against an anti-Putin opposition that has been energized by relative successes in local elections the last three years.
Opposition figures who won local government offices in those elections in St. Petersburg and other cities have reported that pro-Kremlin officials have opened criminal investigations and otherwise harassed them as they tried to carry out their new jobs.
Last July, the popular governor of the Khabarovsk region, Sergei Furgal of the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia, was arrested on charges stemming from a spate of murders dating back to 2004-05. The region has seen continuous protests since then, as Furgal’s supporters allege he is being persecuted for soundly thrashing the United Russia incumbent in a runoff election in 2018.
In August, prominent opposition leader Aleksei Navalny fell violently ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. Compelling evidence indicates that he was poisoned by Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives using a Novichok-type nerve agent, and his supporters say he was targeted for his anti-Putin political activity. The Kremlin has said it was not involved in the incident, but has refused to cooperate with international investigators or to open a criminal probe in Russia.
“If you know any principled politicians, officials, or government managers…who are trying to work properly and who are not being undercut, please tell me in the comments below,” Tovkailo wrote on Facebook on January 11.
“It is important for Putin, particularly now, ahead of the federal elections, to show that he controls the entire country, even the most protest-prone regions,” said Moscow-based political analyst Aleksandr Kynev.
Circumstantially at least, Avksentyeva seems to fit into this pattern. The first female mayor in the history of the city, she was elected in September 2018 with a plurality of 39.9 percent. Her main rival was the city council’s chairman, Aleksandr Savvinov of United Russia. From 2007 until 2012, Avksentyeva, 50, served as the city’s deputy mayor.
She quickly attracted the public’s attention by getting rid of a city-owned fleet of cars in Moscow that was used by officials visiting the capital. The cost-saving measure was so popular that she soon announced a “program of using taxis for official trips” around the city, with the intention of getting rid of city hall’s automobile fleet in Yakutsk as well.
In November 2020, Avksentyeva announced plans to auction off the city government’s large downtown administrative building and move the government to “cheaper facilities” elsewhere in the city.
Bureaucrats, she wrote on social media at the time, “don’t need to sit in a pricy building in the very center of the city.”
She attached to her post a photograph of herself as a small child in the 1970s working on a “voluntary” Saturday work shift on the construction of the Yakutsk city administration building.
“Her main attribute was her openness to local citizens, her accessibility,” Kynev added.
Avksentyeva was also distinguished by the fact that there was no portrait of Putin in her office. In its place, she demonstratively hung a photograph of a traditional celebration by native Yakut people.
She was also one of the only politicians in Russia who spoke up publicly in defense of Aleksandr Gabyshev, a Yakut shaman who has made several attempts to march to Moscow to “drive President Vladimir Putin out of the Kremlin.”
In June, she denounced Gabyshev’s forced confinement in a psychiatric hospital as “selective punishment.”
Around the same time, she publicly voted against a Kremlin-drafted raft of constitutional amendments that, among other things, made it legally possible for Putin to seek two additional presidential terms and potentially remain in the Kremlin until 2036. The amendments also abolished direct elections for city mayors such as the one Avksentyeva won in 2018.
She took to social media in August to complain about “increasingly frequent disinformation attacks” against her and the “unprecedented lies that have flooded out about me since the vote on the constitution.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if some criminal case is opened soon,” she wrote.
“I think they would have forgiven her somehow for supporting the shaman,” political commentator Nikolai Podosokorsky wrote on Facebook on January 11, “but voting against lifetime rule for Putin was critically important. Another prominent politician who voted against the amendments, Federation Council member Vycheslav Markhayev, lost his post last September.”
“I wish her health and a successful surgery,” he concluded. “I think she did a lot under the current circumstances. It is wonderful that there were such people among Russia’s mayors. It is a shame that she has turned out to be the last free mayor in Putin’s Russia.”
The Yakutsk city legislature is expected to officially accept Avksentyeva’s resignation on January 14.
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