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Russia's Astrakhan Election Crisis Heats Up

Astrakhan Protesters To Ease Hunger Strike
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Opposition mayoral candidate Oleg Shein says he and his supporters will relax the terms of their hunger strike after they reached an agreement with Russian Central Election Commission chief Vladimir Churov.

MOSCOW -- In a dramatic appearance before the Astrakhan regional legislature, opposition mayoral candidate Oleg Shein vowed to continue his 28-day hunger strike until new elections are called.

Shein's speech on April 12 came after a local prosecutor denied that violations influenced the result of last month's election.

Shein, whose cause has become a nationwide cause celebre, said he will now permit himself to drink juice to soften the impact of his hunger strike.

He made this concession after Election Commission chief Vladimir Churov agreed to study dozens of videos that Shein and his supporters say will prove that the March 4 election was fraudulent.

Speaking at an extraordinary session of the Astrakhan Oblast Duma, Shein indicated that he hoped working with officials sent from Moscow would help overturn the election results and stamp out local corruption.

"We will begin jointly working with the Central Election Commission and the general prosecutor [on April 16] in order to finally bring order to Astrakhan and return the freedom that was stolen from the city," he said.

Focal Point For Opposition

Shein, a 40-year-old former State Duma deputy for A Just Russia, 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.
Astrakhan mayoral candidate Oleg Shein near the Astrakhan Regional Duma building
Astrakhan mayoral candidate Oleg Shein near the Astrakhan Regional Duma building

Shein’s stand against the local ruling United Russia party comes as the opposition has made local elections the focal point of their battle with the Kremlin.

They have scored victories in recent mayoral elections in Moscow Oblast, Tolyatti, and Yaroslavl. A Just Russia's leader, Sergei Mironov, flew to Astrakhan in southern Russia on April 12 where he will join anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, Solidarity leader Ilya Yashin, and other activists in supporting Shein.

Mironov, a longtime associate of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, is attempting to position himself as a mediator in the crisis.

He said he personally asked Churov to study videos allegedly capturing blatant election fraud which have been posted widely on Russian blogs.

Mironov said he believes the public should decide via a referendum whether to hold repeat elections.

'Twitter Feed Exploding'

Dmitry Gudkov, a member of A Just Russia, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service on the sidelines of the Astrakhan Duma session that the local authorities have been backed into a corner and have no logical choice but to concede to Shein.

He compared the officials to "bogatyrs," or medieval Russian knights, who find themselves "at a fork in the road."

"If they go left they lose their horse and if they go right they lose their head," he said.

He added that they should come to a compromise or all those who thronged Moscow's Bolotnaya Square for anti-Kremlin protests in December 2011 "will come here and they will lose their head."

"We will definitely win repeat elections or else we will get a referendum," he said. "My Twitter feed is exploding with the number of people who want to come here and are writing me messages."

Prominent socialite-turned-activist Kseniya Sobchak has offered to pay for protesters to fly to Astrakhan to lend support to Shein.

Little Signs Of Concession

Nonetheless, even as support for Shein grows, there are scant signs that the Kremlin is prepared to make serious concessions.

On April 11, Putin’s final address to parliament as prime minister was marred when all of the A Just Russia faction, which holds 64 seats, stormed out of the State Duma in protest after Putin criticized Shein’s decision to hunger strike.

Putin slammed Shein for not taking to matter to the courts instead.

"Honestly, it's a little strange," he said. "Why starve? Maybe a court will still investigate it and everyone will agree with the results of that investigation."

Despite expressing doubt about the fairness of any judicial proceedings, opposition activists in Astrakhan have said Shein will actually file an official court complaint challenging his election defeat.

Sergei Mironov told reporters that Shein will "most probably" lodge the complaint on April 13. Mironov said this had not been done previously because "until now we did not have the facts and the materials that could prove how impossible it was to determine the genuine expression of the people's will."

Parliamentary speaker Sergei Naryshkin told RIA Novosti that a State Duma working group sent to Astrakhan last month is due to report on the situation on April 14 and that deputies will then discuss a resolution.

But Aleksei Mukhin, director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information, maintains that he has yet to see signs that the Kremlin is considering making a concession to the opposition.

"Astrakhan is becoming the Russian opposition's own testing ground for trying out tools of influence over the authorities," he said.

"As long as the high-placed authorities, and by this I mean the Kremlin, continues to ignore the Astrakhan problem or says that it is not a concern that situation will continue to intensify. In the end it could turn into something unpleasant for the authorities and mass protests by the citizens."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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