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Local hunger strike in Astrakhan grows into federal-scale problem

April 11, 2012, 17:03 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

The events in Astrakhan – a city 1,500 kilometers away from Moscow in the lower reaches of the Volga River with a population of over half a million people – may prove a social detonator and a problem of the federal scale. The local public is angry about the controversial results of the mayoral election. However, involved in the conflict are federal level figures, and hunger-striking oppositional politicians have been gaining growing support of the population.

At the March 4 election of the mayor of Astrakhan the nominee of the ruling party United Russia, Mikhail Stolyarov, was declared the winner. He reportedly got a 60% majority vote. The leader of the Astrakhan branch of the A Just Russia party, Oleg Shein, collected 29.95% of the votes. On March 16, the day of Stolyarov’s inauguration, Shein and his supporters went on hunger strike in protest against the election returns which, they argue, had been rigged. The oppositional activists are demanding a rerun of the mayoral election.

On the 26th day of the hunger strike the city saw a rally by Shein’s supporters, which resulted in clashes with police. In the meantime, oppositional politicians from Moscow began to gather in Astrakhan on Tuesday. By the time of their arrival Astrakhan had begun to look like a city under siege. The local people say the city has never seen so many police on the streets. At about noon the first mass rally gathered in Shein’s support. About 500 showed up.

Shein said that he had no intention of ending the hunger strike until an election rerun has been declared. According to witnesses, he is physically exhausted. The clothes on him look baggy, and although he appeared at the rally, he had to speak sitting on a chair. He said he had lost ten kilograms and developed heart problems.

In the meantime, in Moscow a hunger strike of solidarity is continuing. Eight civil activists led by Left Front coordinator Sergei Udaltsov have joined in. For the past few days people from several regions – Moscow, Yaroslavl and Volgograd – have displayed unheard-of solidarity with the hunger-strikers in Astrakhan. They have been moving south using private cars, inter-city busses, trains and planes. On the social networks supporters have been sharing routes and pointing to the most risky spots on the way. Those unable to go themselves have offered to pay for somebody else’s transport expenses or to buy a tent.

After the first rally in Astrakhan State Duma members from A Just Russia, Dmitry Gudkov and Ilya Ponomaryov, met with Astrakhan’s Governor Alexander Zhilkin and Mayor Stolyarov. Ponomaryov told the daily Kommersant the governor was friendly and expressed the understanding of the need “to get out of the situation somehow.” Although the governor is certain United Russia’s candidate was the election winner, he asked Shein and Stolyarov to agree to an election rerun. Stolyarov is emphatically against.

A group of representatives from all factions has drawn up a list of violations at the elections, saying that the staff of election commissions did not let observers come up to the tables with ballot papers, that heaps of uncounted ballot papers were put into bags and taken away, and that members of election commissions were refusing to demonstrate the already sorted ballot papers.

In the meantime, the Prosecutor’s Office of the Astrakhan Region said on Tuesday that 134 polling stations of the 202 had been checked. As a result a mere seven violations were identified. All were related “non- compliance with procedural formalities.”

The federal and local authorities have interpreted the hunger strike as “blackmail” and said that they would defy the protesters’ demands. They told the angry opponents to seek justice in a court of law.

There has been no comment from President Dmitry Medvedev so far. And Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that neither the head of government nor the president had the right to cancel the results of elections.

“I am unable to influence that process,” Putin said, when asked about the Astrakhan affair after he finished the government’s annual report to the State Duma on Wednesday. “Only a court of law can make a decision to cancel election returns. If it finds no reasons for that, then the results that there are will have to be accepted. He (Shein) has gone on a hunger strike without going to court.” Putin acknowledged that he was not familiar with the details of the affair. He speculated, though, that more such incidents might occur in view of the forthcoming restoration of gubernatorial elections. “There may be more such collisions, but the president has no right (to cancel such results),” Putin said once again. “If you believe that there must be such a right, then let us discuss this.”

The head of Putin’s local public liaison office, State Duma member Leonid Ogul, has dismissed the latest actions by A Just Russia activists in Astrakhan as “political blackmail” and “attempts to move protests from Moscow to regions.” He agrees that no compromises with the protesters should be made. It is up to a court of law to pronounce a verdict, but the opposition activists are in no hurry to file a lawsuit.

“A hunger strike without sufficient proof is nothing but an act of blackmail and a means to draw attention,” said the chairman of the Public Chamber’s commission for local self-government Svetlana Razvorotneva.

However, the Astrakhan affair is gradually developing into a federal problem, experts warn.

“The echo of the Astrakhan row has proved far louder than one might have originally anticipated,” the head of the fund Petersburg Politics, Mikhail Vinogradov, has told the daily Kommersant. He believes that the cancellation of the mayoral election returns might put a question mark over the legitimacy of the federal elections, too. “For the federal center this would be tantamount to beating a retreat,” he said.

As the deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, Alexei Makarkin, has explained to the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the federal authorities had hoped that the hunger strike problem would be dissolved somehow. “They failed to take into account the fact that Shein is a radical politician. Many remember him as an activist of the early 1990s. He is capable of going much farther than the other oppositional politicians. If the situation in the city gets critical, the election may have to be held again,” Makarkin said.

And political scientist Boris Makarenko believes that achieving an election rerun will be very difficult. “Providing evidence of violations at 25% of the polling stations will be very difficult, if possible at all,” the RBC Daily quotes the analyst as saying.

MOSCOW, April 11