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Russia’s opposition movement tested in southern city

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ASTRAKHAN, Russia — For almost four weeks, few people in this onetime caviar capital in southern Russia knew that an opposition mayoral candidate here had been on a hunger strike to protest an election he says was stolen from him.

Then, this week, the leaders of the protests that startled Russia’s government this winter descended from Moscow onto this city of 500,000, bringing with them national attention. On Wednesday, even Prime Minister Vladimir Putin weighed in, saying that the protesters should have courts review the alleged election violations. The opposition promptly agreed.

The quick turnaround is a testament both to the newfound power of the national opposition and to the tremendous challenges it faces as it tries to harness the fast-dissipating energy of the recent protests and transform them into something more durable.

Putin is readying for a six-year presidential term, and the chance for quick fixes to the political system seems as unlikely as catching a caviar-rich sturgeon in the Volga River’s now-
depleted waters.

“People are feeling that bigger changes are possible,” said Oleg Shein, 40, the mayoral candidate, who now fastens his belt at the tightest notch after losing 22 pounds in the last 28 days. “Moscow’s very different. Here, we are fighting for our basic rights. We don’t have any freedom at all.”

A little-known protest

In Astrakhan, a lack of media coverage until Tuesday meant that few residents knew of Shein’s accusations or his struggle even as opposition circles in Moscow watched with increasing concern, stoked by his day-by-day entries on a blog that is little-read locally because few people have Internet connections.

Shein said that observers were prevented from watching ballot counts and that voting irregularities suggest that he, not his Putin-backed opponent, won the election, which was held March 4 at the same time Putin won election.

Then, this week, Alexei Navalny, one of the leaders of the winter protests, took up the cause in earnest on his blog, and he and several other leaders traveled 800 miles from Moscow to Astrakhan to see what was happening.

Their visit brought a crush of journalists, a protest of several hundred people, and — perhaps most important — coverage on national television on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“I was amazed” not to have heard about the protest earlier, said Galina Layevskaya, 23, an Astrakhan stay-at-home mother who said she voted for Shein last month because she felt he was the most honest candidate but learned about the hunger strike from television coverage only Tuesday. “We are talking about our future.”

Shein’s supporters have scheduled another protest for Saturday, and they hope to lure more big names from Moscow to help draw a local crowd. But the date falls between Good Friday and Easter on the Russian Orthodox calendar, which is likely to hamper attendance.

The odds of change

On Wednesday, Putin added his voice to the discussion, telling the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, that courts could review the case.

“If the violations may call into question the election outcome, the court should invalidate it,” Putin said, according to the Interfax news agency. “However, if the court finds no grounds
for that, it means that we will have to accept the election outcome."

“Maybe the court will make a decision and everyone will agree with it,” he added.

Putin also said that he supported limiting the country’s presidents to two terms in office — another concession to protesters — but that any change could not be retroactive and would not apply to him as he prepares for his third term as president.

To bolster their complaint, opposition leaders will rely on evidence collected from the Web cameras that Putin ordered to be trained on every ballot box in the country after allegations of voting fraud in parliamentary elections in December. The webcam initiative was widely derided by opposition voices at the time as merely a token concession.

In Astrakhan, Shein’s supporters were initially denied access to recordings from most voting locations. After the protests this week, they were promised copies within days.

But despite the small victories, neither national opposition leaders nor some of Shein’s staunchest local supporters are hopeful that the protests there will bring about major change.

“We need to make it federal news so people around the corner learn about it?” said Sergei Parkhomenko, a Moscow radio host and a leader of this winter’s protests who flew to Astrakhan on Wednesday. “It’s just a catastrophic situation with the information. The governor only feels pressure because people from Moscow are calling him and telling him to put an end to this. He’s not worried because of people here, he’s worried because it’s Moscow news.”

Many local supporters sounded equally pessimistic about the prospects of mobilizing enough people in Astrakhan to maintain pressure on authorities.

“Astrakhan people have not yet realized this is serious,” said Denis Gavrikov, 30, an event organizer who has watched the city swell with construction money — unevenly and corruptly spent, he said — in the nine years he has lived there. “There are many people who really are mad about what’s going on in this country. But they’re not ready to come out. It’s just talk.”

Using the spotlight

On Wednesday, Shein sought to capitalize on the attention, crashing a sleepy meeting of the regional parliament with two dozen supporters and reporters in tow and demanding to show the eight surprised officials what he said was videotaped evidence of election irregularities. They quickly gave in, scheduling the session for Thursday.

“There are always problems, anywhere, everywhere. The question is the scope and whether they made a difference,” Alexander Bashkin, one of the local parliamentarians, said in an interview after the meeting. “Of course there were violations, and there will be violations.”

Authorities displayed little sign of being used to the scrutiny brought by the Moscow opposition.

“Why are you interrogating people?” asked a local police officer who briefly detained an American reporter and a Russian colleague as they interviewed a local resident in a park. “I got an order to find out what you were talking to people about.”

But people who voted for Shein and against the establishment candidate could be found in some unlikely locations Wednesday, suggesting that there might be fertile soil for the opposition movement.

At Astrakhan’s Museum of Military Glory, whose signs are Soviet red and whose elegant trimming is an imperial baby blue, employees might have been expected to support Russia’s current rulers, too.

“We heard just a little about these protests” in Moscow and St. Petersburg, said Yekaterina Kozolna, 63, who works at the information counter at the museum. “But all of our staff, all our friends and acquaintances, we voted for Shein.”

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