Mayoral candidate, Yevgeny Urlashov speaks to the media during voting in a mayoral election in the city of Yaroslavl
A defector from Vladimir Putin's United Russia has been elected mayor of the city of Yaroslavl in a setback for the governing party and a triumph for the opposition's new strategy of chipping away at his rule in local elections.
Pothole-ridden roads, utility bills, childcare and housing were voters' chief worries as they gave Yevgeny Urlashov victory over a businessman on Sunday with nearly 70 percent of votes in this picturesque industrial city of 600,000 northeast of Moscow, reports Reuters.
But opposition leaders and political experts saw the vote as a test of the staying power of the highly centralised political system that Putin has built since rising to power in 2000 and is likely to continue when he takes over as president in May.
"I have never seen so many cameras in my life... I want to thank all the people who believed that changes can start in Yaroslavl," Urlashov, 44, told reporters.
"People want a gulp of fresh air."
Demonstrations in big cities including Moscow, sparked by anger over allegations that fraud helped United Russia win a parliamentary poll in December, failed to prevent Putin winning back the presidency but have removed his air of invincibility.
Opposition leaders now hope to make their presence felt by winning local and regional elections and taking advantage of limited Kremlin reforms that will make it easier to register political parties in a concession to the protesters.
"Stability is over (for Putin): Regional elections will be used as a testing ground for developing tactics to oppose Putin and United Russia," said sociologist Sergei Belanovsky, a director at the Moscow-based Centre for Strategic Research.
"Where the opposition wins a majority, they can afford to be disloyal."
Urlashov is not a new face for local voters.
An eight-year veteran of the city council and former member of United Russia, he joined the budding protest movement in September and campaigned against graft and a lack of change in leadership since Soviet times.