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Russia’s civil protests are not dead, they have taken new disguise, experts say. The main trend of protest sentiment is it has moved from the capital and other large Russian cities to the regional level.
The ongoing multi-day hunger strike by oppositional figures against rumored rigging at the mayoral election in the city of Astrakhan, in the lower reaches of the Volga River, remains a federal scale political event. Alongside that a group of residents of Omsk, which has been hunger-striking since last January in protest against corruption and outrage by the law enforcers, on Wednesday moved to the local liaison office of the Russian president. The protesters have declared they will not leave until the presidential representative for Siberia has agreed to meet with them. They decided to step up their protest action to follow the example of hunger-striking former candidate for the mayor of Astrakhan, Oleg Shein.
When the hunger-strike in Omsk began on January 27, there were about 60 protesters. Each has one’s own reason, but all complain against injustices committed by police, and the executive and judicial authorities. Their main demand is the arrival of an independent panel of inquiry from the Prosecutor-General’s Office for thorough investigation.
“As such the hunger-strike is not something out of the ordinary. Similar protests are on in several regions of Russia. Our goal is to draw attention to ourselves with some high-profile action. This is the sole way of having the president’s attention,” says woman protester Olga Lomakova.
“Shein has managed to have his voice heard, because the leader of A Just Russia Party, Sergei Mironov, and other people of renown have put a word for him,” said the leader of the hunger-strike in Omsk, Irina Zaitseva.
A Just Russia member, former candidate for Astrakhan’s mayor, Oleg Shein, who is protesting against what he claims was mass rigging of returns from the elections in which United Russia’s candidate emerged the winner with a slight majority, has been refusing to take food since March 16. He and his fellow hunger-strikers demand cancellation of the election results.
On Wednesday Shein got back to Astrakhan after a brief one-day trip to Moscow, where together with Sergei Mironov and head of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, he studied video recordings from the polling stations. Shein said he would go ahead with the hunger strike until there has been an official reaction from the CEC to the video files confirming the illegitimacy of the election.
Churov has already said that he did not see anything that might look like rigging, except for many procedural violations. He also complained he had been deceived: “Shein and his supporters had promised to stop the ‘insane and useless’ hunger strike, if the CEC agrees to see the videos, but they have failed to fulfill their promise.”
However, even if Shein and his backers fail to achieve anything from the authorities, their protest has not been in vain. Both the parliamentary and out-of-parliament opposition have rallied around them. A group of top tier Moscow politicians made a visit to Astrakhan. A mere three or four years ago it would not have occurred to anyone that a mayoral election in any single city might deserves so much attention.
Experts see this as evidence of a qualitative change in protests, which are taking new disguises, forms and means of expression and put forward new leaders.
The protest movement has been reformatting itself, says the Left Front’s leader, Sergei Udaltsov. “We are looking for new forms. The theme of fair elections should be coupled with social issues and the problems of regions,” Novyie Izvestia quotes him as saying. “The main task is to put the protest on the right track, to bring to the fore not just the global issue of re-elections and the illegitimacy of the authorities, but also to work for the solution on regional disputes and ecological conflicts. Cheaters and thieves should be fought against on all fronts.”
A Just Russia deputy, Ilya Ponomaryov, believes that “in the current series of protests people who have been calling for transition from statements to conclusions and from conclusions to action have taken center stage.” The recent events in the cities of Togliatti, Yaroslavl and Astrakhan were the brightest manifestations of such a transformation. There emerged personalities who managed to unite around them the angry public and to draw the attention of the whole country to their problems.
One of the leaders of the oppositional movement Solidarity, Ilya Ponomaryov, believes the worst mistake of the politicians of the 1990s was they thought it would be enough to create a liberal trend in Moscow alone and that the regions would automatically accept it. “That did not happen,” he said. “Everybody is getting aware of the idea the regions must become centers of civil development.”
Growing strength of civil protests is a hard fact. “Society is learning to live apart from the authorities,” says the daily Novyie Izvestia. There have cropped up systems of vote counting that are independent from the authorities, for instance the League of Voters, Observer Citizen, alternative organizations, fire brigades, and mechanisms of assistance to the ill. Society is almost ready to create an alternative police.
“The Opposition should try to link political protests with social ones, because these will be expanding,” says political scientist Alexei Makarkin.
The political scientist sees the authorities’ attempts to play down the concessions it had agreed to make at first is another evidence protests will be soaring. Now, there already exists a presidential decision on the elections of heads of regions, but at the same time there have emerged various filters for keeping undesirable candidates away. “If this or that region puts forward a strong candidate who fails to get through these filters, then the people will take to the streets at once, and the Moscow public will be helping them and demanding either the cancellation of these filters or the green light to this specific candidate,” Makarkin speculates. “The very same filters may cause more protests.”
MOSCOW, April 19