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.