Thousands march against election fraud in Astrakhan

The capital of Russian opposition moved from Moscow to the southern city of Astrakhan last week. More than 5,000 people came out in support of ex-mayoral candidate Oleg Shein, who has been on hunger strike for over a month in protest against mayoral election results. The protest rally was the largest since those  held in Moscow in time leading up to and following the presidential election.

While no protests were held in Ashtrakhan against Vladimir Putin’s controversial win, Oleg Shein’s loss has triggered a political crisis.  The mayoral elections took place at the same time as the presidential election, 4 March. Shein’s supporters claim that he was the victim of a fraudulent election, and some have even joined him on hunger strike. Shein has garnered support from opposition leaders in Moscow and other Russian cities, who spent last week rallying support for the former candidate, and joined him at the 14 April rally.

Even though Astrakhan police blocked the city centre and pro-Kremlin youth gathered to provoke the crowd, Shein’s supporters still rallied together peacefully. The group of 5,000 marched while chanting “Shein is our mayor”, “one for all and all for one”, “freedom to political prisoners”, and “we are the power”.  Three activists were arrested for attempting to pitch tents in front of municipal buildings, but were released after a couple of hours.

“Astrakhan hasn’t seen such mass protests since mid 1990s,” Oleg Shein told journalists, adding that “mass protests against elections have broken the boundaries of Moscow and Saint-Petersburg.” According to Shein, people in Astrakhan have quickly lost their fear, and now believe that they can influence the government. Tens of people gathered to protest publicly in support of Shein a week before the rally. Russian opposition leaders Dmitry Gudkov, Ilya Ponamarev, Alexey Navalny and celebrities such as TV host Ksenia Sobchak and actor Maxim Vitorgan helped encourage citizens to be brave enough to support Shein.

The protesters have vowed to remain in Astrakhan’s streets every Saturday until new mayoral elections are held. Russian Central Election Committee head Vladimir Churov has already agreed to watch video footage from polling stations, where fraud allegedly took place. Today Oleg Shein will reveal whether or not Churov has confirmed his allegations. Yesterday, Shein filed a suit against the election results, but remains on hunger strike because he does not believe that the Russian judicial system is impartial.


Russia: Oleg Shein on hunger strike in protest against election “fraud”

Oleg SheinEx-mayoral opposition candidate Oleg Shein is continuing his 29-day hunger strike protesting against local mayoral election results. Held the same day as presidential elections, they were allegedly no less fraudulent. United Russia’s candidate Mikhail Stolyarov won 60 per cent of the vote and Shein less than 30.

Shein, member of political party “A Just Russia” and Astrakhan region duma deputy, told Index on Censorship he refused to stop the strike despite concerns over his health from doctors’ and human rights activists’, until new mayoral elections are held. “Astrakhan has become the capital of fraud”, said Shein, claiming he and his supporters will prove their allegations in court through providing it with video recordings of election law violations.

Shein told Index that he and three of his supporters have been on hunger strike for a month, nine other people have joined them in solidarity and have been on hunger strike for more than ten days, and another ten people joined the strike a couple of days ago.

In his annual address to the State Duma, Vladimir Putin  said he didn’t understand why Shein was choosing hunger strike, rather than appealing to the courts. Just Russia deputies walked out, considering the remark cynical and insulting.

As Shein explained to Index, “only a silly man comes to court without proof”, which, in this case is a number of video recordings from Astrakhan’s election committees. According to Russian law, all recordings made in local election committees on election day must be provided to those who request them by the Central Election Committee. Shein only obtained some of the recordings this week — almost a month after his request and the start of the hunger strike, hence why he didn’t appeal to the court before. Sergei Mironov, leader of A Just Russia has said that the corruption and bias in Russian courts was another reason for Shein to take alternative action.

The Central Election Committee authorities, as well as Astrakhan prosecutor, said Oleg Shein’s hunger strike and his allegations are insufficient reason to hold re-elections in Astrakhan. Yesterday, the Committee’s head Vladimir Churov agreed to look into the issue and watch the video recordings together with Shein. United Russia deputies both in the State Duma and Astrakhan have condemned Shein’s hunger strike, describing it as illegitimate and accusing him of extremism. Astrakhan is flooded with hundreds of policemen, who are preventing people from forming protest camps near Shein’s headquarters.

United Russia seems to be particularly angered by the fact that every day tens of Russian citizens flock to Astrakhan in support of Shein. His supporters in Astrakhan already include Russian opposition leaders such as Alexei Navalny, Ilya Ponomarev, Dmitry Gudkov and Ilya Yashin, who are expected to be joined by popular writer Dmitry Bykov and TV host Ksenia Sobchak.

This Saturday, the opposition will hold a rally for fair elections in Astrakhan. It is expected to be the biggest opposition event since the mass protest rallies in Moscow in February.