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.
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.
Putin responded that neither he nor outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev had the authority to do anything about the allegations of a miscarried election in Astrakhan.
"As far as I know, your colleague Oleg Shein, has started the hunger strike but did not appeal to a court. This is a bit strange. Why go on hunger strike?" Putin said. "Maybe a court will find the violations sufficient to cancel the election, but if it finds no grounds for the case then [Shein's supporters] should accept the result."
That prompted most of Just Russia's Duma fraction, 64 deputies, to stand up and walk out – a clear sign that the tame parliaments of Putin's first two presidential terms are a thing of the past.
Today Mr. Churov finally agreed to review the video evidence collected by Shein's supporters. "I am ready to organize a viewing of episodes of footage from polling stations in the city of Astrakhan on the condition that Oleg Shein calls off his senseless and useless hunger strike," the official RIA-Novosti agency quoted him as saying.
It remains to be seen whether the concentration of opposition firepower in deeply provincial Astrakhan can ignite a local equivalent of the mass street protests seen in Moscow in the weeks after widespread allegations of fraud in December's State Duma elections.
Some experts say the opposition's shift to local struggles like Astrakhan is the last gasp of a defeated movement that ought to be seeking new ways to dialogue with authorities, build their own political parties, and take advantage of the the broader electoral opportunities that have opened up thanks to reforms introduced by Mr. Medvedev after the protest movement erupted in Moscow in December.
"The opposition has a choice now. They can go down the road of being radicalized and marginalized," or they can look for opportunities to work within the system, says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "This is the end of the December [protest] movement, not the beginning of a new one."
The opposition have called for a mass rally in downtown Astrakhan on April 14 to demand cancellation of the allegedly fraudulent March 4 election and a fresh round of voting under new rules that will ensure fairness and transparency.
"In Astrakhan we have a crystal clear case of mass falsifications, much of which is captured on video," says Ilya Ponomaryov, a Just Russia Duma deputy and protest organizer. "The remarkable thing is that all these violations have been recorded on the official webcams that were installed in every polling station, because people were banned from bringing their own cameras or cell phones into the voting places. This tells you just how cynical the authorities were about it. They got away with it many times in the past, and thought they could do so with impunity again… We hope the people of Astrakhan will respond to this opportunity to reclaim their votes."