After election setback, anti-Putin opposition takes struggle to the provinces
The intervention of Moscow's most prominent anti-Putin activists in a city 800 miles from the capital has put a local mayoral race on the national stage.
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After failing to pose a powerful enough challenge in Moscow to derail Vladimir Putin's drive for a third presidential term and disrupt the Kremlin-controlled system of "managed democracy," opposition leaders are taking their struggle into Russia's far-flung provinces, where they say electoral fraud is still rampant.
At the center of attention is the small Caspian city of Astrakhan, 800 miles southeast of Moscow (see map) and once known as the caviar capital of Russia. Moscow's leading opposition figures, such as blogger Alexei Navalny, parliamentarian Ilya Ponomaryov, journalist Leonid Parfyonov, TV celebrity-turned-protest-leader Ksenia Sobchak, and Moscow street doctor Elizaveta Glinka have congregated there this week.
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The goal is to mount a credible protest challenge to a March 4 mayoral election in which, they claim, pro-Kremlin United Russia candidate Mikhail Stolaryov steamrolled his main rival, Oleg Shein of the left-wing Just Russia party, using all the dirty tricks in the old "managed democracy" toolbox, including repeat voting, voter coercion, and ballot box stuffing. According to the official tally, Mr. Stolaryov won with more than 60 percent of the vote, compared to Mr. Shein's 30 percent.
Shein has been on a hunger strike since March 16 over electoral officials' refusal to review evidence of massive fraud (which Russian activists have collected in a huge compendium of polling station videos here). But he says he feels heartened by the arrival of so many opposition stars from Moscow, which has rocketed the formerly obscure local battle onto the national stage.
"I even decided to have some orange juice this morning, after the news that [Central Election Commission chief Vladimir] Churov has agreed to view the evidence of fraud," thanks to the sudden burst of national attention, Shein told the Monitor by telephone today.
Shein says his supporters have collected webcam evidence of fraud at half of Astrakhan's 203 polling stations. "It is important for us, not just for our local reasons, but because the whole course of democracy and freedom in Russia is at stake here," he says.
The Astrakhan situation had gone largely unreported in Russia's state-led media for the past month, but was unexpectedly thrust into the glare of publicity yesterday, when Just Russia deputies confronted Mr. Putin about it during the question period after he delivered his report as outgoing prime minister to the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.