- - Wednesday, May 2, 2012

TVER, Russia — With its crumbling facades, potholed roads and increasingly disgruntled population, this small western city symbolizes one of the biggest challenges Russian leader Vladimir Putin will face after he is sworn in for a new presidential term in a lavish ceremony Monday.

Here, as elsewhere in the vast hinterlands that hold some 90 percent of Russia’s population, the loyal base that has propped up Mr. Putin’s regime for the past decade is fading fast, as discontent slowly begins to take hold outside of the big cities.

Three hours by train north of Moscow, Tver is in one of the poorest regions of Russia.

Long before mass protests rocked Moscow this winter, older residents in Tver had begun showing frustration with Russian authorities by defiantly voting for the dated Communist Party, instead of Mr. Putin’s United Russia party, in local elections.

Internet generation

Now athreatis emerging from a younger Internet generation that is increasingly interested in political change.

“We’ve come to realize that the problems in this country don’t just stem from the corrupt and authoritarian authorities but also from the fact that people are willing to let them stay in power,” said Alexander Blinov, a 19-year-old economics student who founded Tver’s Civil Action Society.

“We’re trying to show people that they can implement change by themselves.”

Mr. Blinov’s ideas are hardly radical. His first big project was to lobby local government to clean up a city park. But authorities are clearly worried about this new breed of activism.

During the winter election campaign, Mr. Blinov was thrown in jail twice on what he says were trumped-up charges.

On both occasions, the police’s heavy-handed tactics and shortage of credible evidence served to rally more support for Mr. Blinov, turning him into a minor celebrity in the city of nearly 400,000.

Results of the recent presidential election show that the majority of people outside the big cities still support Mr. Putin, but the base is becoming increasingly wobbly, according to analysts such as Alexei Titkov of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

Putin’s support is now largely based on the fact that people see no alternative,” Mr. Titkov said in an interview.

“That kind of support is beginning to look unsustainable, especially since the emergence of several strong protest leaders in the recent election period.”

Mr. Blinov’s Civil Action Society is just one of hundreds of local activist movements that have sprung up across Russia since the presidential election.

Some groups already have achieved real political success. Just east of Tver, in the similar-sized city of Yaroslavl, voters were outraged when a Kremlin-backed candidate won a disputed election in March. City authorities yielded to pressure and held a new election, which an independent won in a landslide.

Privileged bureaucrats

Many Tvers residents say it won’t be long before something similar happens here.

People in the region are becoming increasingly frustrated because government spending on local roads and other infrastructure dried up long ago, while most city officials cruise around Tver in expensive foreign cars.

“The people in charge of this city have become completely detached from the needs of the people,” said Gennady Klimov, the editor of Kravan, an influential regional newspaper.

“They are sent from Moscow and have no interest in life here. Money is their only motivation for doing anything.”

Angry about the party’s indifference to the city’s problems, Mr. Klimov publicly gave up his membership of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party shortly after Mr. Putin’s victory.

Even Ilya Solovyov, the local representative of pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, acknowledges that graft and negligence are the main reasons that much of the city’s 18th-century architecture is crumbling.

He said, however, that it is not up to Mr. Putin to solve local issues in places such as Tver.

But election results show that many of his fellow citizens disagree. At 51 percent, Mr. Putin’s share of the vote in Tver was among the lowest in the country.

Mr. Blinov said authorities will face their real challenge in a string of local elections scheduled in the next year, including those for city government in March.

He said federal authorities will face public backlash if the vote is rigged against opposition candidates.

Democracy doesn’t start from presidential elections, but from local elections,” Mr. Blinov said.

“The process of bringing power back to the people will start from the periphery, from the regions. It has already started.”

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