ASTRAKHAN, Russia — In Moscow’s political hothouse, anti-
corruption blogger Alexei Navalny is one of the few people who has appeal across fractured opposition groups. But outside Russia’s big cities, he faces one basic problem.
“I haven’t heard of him,” said Victor Galyardev, 42, a shipbuilder in Astrakhan.
Navalny took his show on the road this week, flying to this southern fishing and oil city to draw attention to a mayoral candidate on a hunger strike who said the election was stolen from him. But in Astrakhan, where residents are better able to tell the difference between pike and perch than categorize opposition leaders, many are still unfamiliar with Navalny and his compatriots.
If the new opposition is to build a national movement, it will have to move off the Internet and into cities where the best form of communication still comes in person, analysts say.
Across Russia, three in four haven’t heard of Navalny, according to a recent poll by the Levada Center, even though his popularity has soared in Moscow. The opinion polls have improved from last year, when 94 percent nationwide hadn’t heard of him. But they’re a sign of the effectiveness of the media blockade against him — he is rarely mentioned on television, still far and above the most important source of news in the country.
“I’m not inclined to overestimate my popularity,” Navalny said Thursday in an interview as he marched with protesters to the mayor’s office, where they were told that the entire staff was on lunch break. His lack of name recognition is “normal,” he said, given that he’s shut out from mainstream media. But there have been major changes in the last few months, he said. “We can see that the interest in politics has increased exponentially. Turning every political event into a political crisis — this is going to continue,” he said, rattling off cities that have elections coming up.
As the movement that rocked Moscow’s and St. Petersburg’s streets this winter has quieted since the March 4 election that gave Prime Minister Vladimir Putin a third term in the president’s office, organizers have searched beyond Russia’s two main cities for opportunities. Mayors’ offices have appeared attractive targets.
This month an opposition candidate bested the Kremlin’s choice for mayor in Yaroslavl, despite having no access to television and limited funds. In Astrakhan, supporters of opposition mayoral candidate Oleg Shein say the election was stolen from him, and Navalny and other prominent Moscow protest leaders came this week to apply pressure for a new election and speak to Shein, who with others is on a hunger strike.
“When you have only Internet as a communication mechanism, you have to go and meet the people and talk to them face to face,” said Ilya Yashin, another opposition leader who traveled to Astrakhan this week. “I see my role here just to organize these protests.”
Though there’s fertile soil for protests in Astrakhan — many here are pessimistic about prospects for the future and about the performance of the local government — residents remain cautious about turning out on the streets.
“I’ve heard the name,” Lucia Bekeshova, a 35-year-old nurse, said of Navalny. “I believe the elections were not fair. But we are afraid to lose our jobs” by attending protests.
Already, the specter of a big-time political fight has local authorities clearly off-balance. On Thursday, rows of unsmiling police officers in riot gear shut down the central streets of the city of 500,000, as Shein detailed his allegations of election violations in front of the regional parliament and national politicians, including a former presidential candidate, Sergei Mironov, who flew in for the day to advocate for a new ballot.
“As far as I know, people in Astrakhan have a quiet, peaceful life,” the chairman of the parliament, Alexander Klykanov, said at the meeting’s start.
But the rigors of the road, and the eventual end to the election season, may prove a challenge as the opposition tries to build a permanent movement.
“Honestly, I don’t like to travel,” Navalny said. “The test is to get the local people to do this. We don’t need a class of political travelers to go from city to city with tents.”