MOSCOW -- Astrakhan has become the latest front in the ongoing struggle between the Kremlin and the opposition in the regions.
Opposition leaders and activists are rushing to the southern Russian city of 520,000 on the Volga River Delta to lend their support to Oleg Shein, the opposition candidate whose hunger strike over alleged vote rigging in the March 4 mayoral election is entering its 26th day.
Some 20 local activists, some of whom have not eaten solid food since March 16, have joined Shein's hunger strike in an effort to get the results overturned.
Anticorruption blogger and opposition figure Aleksei Navalny flew to Astrakhan on April 10 to join 1,500 demonstrators rallying in support of Shein. Writing on his blog on April 9, Navalny called on his supporters to join him there.
“I am convinced that we have to go,” he wrote. “Our entire protest movement will not be worth much if we are unable to transplant it to where it is needed and awaited.”
Navalny also set up pages on Facebook and the Russian social networking site VKontakte to help arrange travel.
WATCH: Local activists join Oleg Shein in solidarity:
The upheaval in Astrakhan comes shortly after authorities canceled elections in the town of Lermontov in the Stavropol Krai in March after activists staged a hunger strike to protest the exclusion of two opposition candidates.
Nikolai Petrov, a specialist on regional politics at the Moscow Carnegie Center, believes the repeated use of the same tactic puts the authorities in a bind.
"This is exactly what the Kremlin is afraid of," he said. "They fixed the problem in Lermontov, but now it’s more complicated for them. The idea is that if today they come to an agreement on Astrakhan, then tomorrow there will be many more cases like this.”
The opposition has made local elections a key battleground, scoring wins in mayoral elections in Tolyatti, Yaroslavl, and the Moscow Oblast town of Chernogolovka. They even managed to win a third of the open seats in elections to Moscow's district councils on March 4.
The Kremlin's opponents are also aiming to strongly contest mayoral elections in the Siberian city of Omsk in June and a series of regional and municipal races nationwide in October.
Shein, a 40-year-old former State Duma deputy for A Just Russia, has reportedly lost nearly 10 kilograms during his hunger strike. He is demanding a rerun of Astrakhan's March 4 elections in which official results showed him winning just 30 percent of the vote. United Russia’s Mikhail Stolyarov was declared the winner with 60 percent.
The elections were widely criticized for vote rigging. Shein's supporters say they have dozens of videos and documents, which they have posted online
, to support their claims.
Speaking to the daily "Vedomosti" in a video blog on April 10, Shein looked pale and gaunt and said his hunger strike was a last resort.
He also referred to his defeat in Astrakhan’s 2009 mayoral elections, which were marred by allegations of vote tampering
"We have used up all [the alternatives]," he said. "There were really big protests in Astrakhan. In 2009 during the falsification [of the last mayoral elections], people were simply beaten up.
"There were 140 cases of physical attacks on people, committee members were barred from buildings, cars were torched, people kidnapped. This is all recorded on blogs. It's just that then there was no video. Protests had no effect."
In an interview with the AFP news agency on April 9, Shein said Astrakhan's regional governor had approached him and implored him to give up the strike saying that it “is causing political irritation in Moscow.”
There have also been demonstrations of support for Shein in the capital.
On April 10, dozens of activists gathered outside Astrakhan Oblast's regional representation office in Moscow, some carrying signs reading: "People Are Dying."
Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Left Front opposition movement, was detained at the protest. Udaltsov and five other Muscovites are also staging their own hunger strike in solidarity with Shein.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Russian Service, Nikolai Grishin, a political analyst based in Astrakhan, claimed that Shein's hunger strike is escalating but that it is unclear how the standoff will end.
"There is a feeling that the situation has become a stalemate," he said. "This is particularly true for those taking part in the protest since there is very little hope that the elections will be canceled. And, although people are fighting, everyone understands that it is unlikely that the authorities will make significant concessions.
"Many are puzzled at what to do because the hunger strike is threatening the lives of those taking part. On the other hand, the situation is a stalemate for the authorities because the elections were conducted awfully."