A stone’s throw from Kazakhstan, within spitting distance of the Caspian, and an overnight train ride to the troubled republics of the Northern Caucasus, Astrakhan comes as a welcome relief to the weary, frostbitten traveller. After the egg-and-sugar snow of Nizhny Novgorod, the black ice and slush of Moscow and St Petersburg, and the mud-slick that is springtime Volgograd, this slightly run-down city of half a million has the strange but not unpleasant effect of reminding one of the American South.

One wanders along the Volga, which fireworks into a million-pronged delta a little south-east of here, or among the streets of dilapidated houses festooned with wrought-iron, and one could swear that the feminine cough from a window overhead is coming from a consumptive Tennessee Williams character.

In fact, Astrakhan does have its fair share of such tragic, near-death figures, and Oleg Shein is first among them. Today marks the former mayoral candidate’s 28th day of a hunger strike against the results of March 4’s municipal election, which was held concurrently with the country’s presidential one, and that he claims was marred by fraud in favour of Mikhail Stolyarov of the United Russia party. Following his defeat in the election, Shein and his supporters, including several local bloggers, started putting together a sizeable body of evidence to support his accusations, publishing studies of individual polling stations online, collecting signed affidavits from people who say they witnessed irregularities, and in general demonstrating, or at least claiming to demonstrate, how Federal Law 67 (67-FZ), which protects citizens’ electoral rights, was violated across the city.

Their goal was to prove that observers were prevented from performing their duties in at least 51 of the city’s 203 voting precincts — by being seated too far away from those counting the votes to be able to read the ballots, for example — which is the minimum percentage required by law to annul the results and trigger a second election.

But when Russia’s Central Elections Committee refused to grant him access to the full archive of footage recorded by the city’s polling station webcams, installed on the orders of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in order to weed out precisely the kind of fraud that the former candidate was saying he wished to weed out, Shein announced that he had no other option but to begin a hunger strike. He was quickly joined in his endeavour by several supporters, almost all of whom have dropped out at one point or another on medical grounds since, only to join up again or else be replaced by a seemingly endlessly number of young people who are willing to take part in a kind of tag-team famine.

Shein has dropped nine kilograms since the strike began and, according to the Russian blogosphere’s favourite doctor, Elizaveta Glinka, or Dr Liza, “there’s not long left. He may die soon, not even from exhaustion, but from a heart attack. It looks very bad.”

I arrived in Astrakhan on the morning of the hunger strike’s 18th day, 24 hours after a couple of dozen people had taken to the city centre to show their support for what their preferred candidate was doing. That event was given very little coverage in the local press and even less in its wider domestic and international counterparts. The Muscovite opposition and its media allies seemed to be taking an awfully long time to realise that something was going on down south — or at least to work out how they might respond to it — and continued to take it long after I left the city a few days later.

It wasn’t until the anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Alexey Navalny, following two short blog posts earlier in the strike vaguely expressing his in-principle support for the action, announced over the weekend that he would travel to Astrakhan to visit the protesters this week that the story suddenly began to gain traction. Navalny flew into Astrakhan at midnight on Tuesday to the glare of media flashbulbs. A similar visit from Sergei Mironov, the leader of Shein’s party, A Just Russia, a week earlier, had gone comparatively unremarked upon.

The earlier visit probably helps to explain why the opposition failed to embrace the protest sooner, too. Shein’s affiliation with A Just Russia, the systemic opposition party propped up by the Kremlin to leech votes from the Communists, as well as with Mironov, famous for for claiming, during his 2004 presidential campaign, that he actually supported Vladimir Putin, couldn’t have helped to have endeared him to hardline anti-Putinists in the non-systemic camp.

Not wanting to jump to conclusions probably had something to do with the opposition’s reluctance to express solidarity too readily as well. On the one hand, any sign of dissent outside the capital is usually seized upon immediately by the opposition as evidence that anti-Putinism is not confined to the political and cultural capitals of European Russia. On the other, the immediacy with which such seizures take place has occasionally backfired.

In February, such signs were seized upon prematurely, when several former city council deputies in Lermontov, a small town in the North Caucasus named for the famous poet-duellist, occupied the local municipal building and later went on a successful 10-day hunger strike to protest the fact that they had not been allowed to register as candidates in the municipal election. While the occupation was quickly labelled “a small revolution” by oppositionists in the capital, with a video of one ex-deputy calling for Putin’s resignation quickly making the rounds, it soon became apparent that dissatisfaction with the once-and-future president was of secondary or even tertiary importance to the majority of the protesters.

Video footage later appeared online of one elderly woman appealing directly to the good tsar to intervene and correct the injustice. Mironov’s plan to do the same on Shein’s behalf — “We will definitely ask Putin about the situation in Astrakhan,” he told reporters earlier this week — was as telling as it was ineffective. When Putin told the Duma yesterday, in his last address to the parliament as prime minister, that he had no authority over local elections and that the hunger strikers should take their case to court, several A Just Russia deputies upped and walked out in protest.

Which goes to show that people are happy for the outgoing prime minister to overstep the limits of his office so long as he’s overstepping those limits for them. Shein has said he will lodge a lawsuit today.In the end, desperation probably has as much to do with the opposition’s sudden decision to send a convoy south as it does with any genuine political affinity between it and the hunger strikers. After weeks of essentially fruitless, poorly attended protests, the opposition needs to regain its momentum and seems to think that a martyr — perhaps even a literal one — might be just the ticket. Why it would think so is a little unclear.

The clockwork attempts of its own hunger-striker-in-chief, Sergei Udaltsov, to martyr himself have been showing diminishing returns for nearly nearly five months. (Udaltsov’s own contribution to Shein’s cause has been to start a solidarity hunger strike back in the capital. Unless I’ve missed one — he announces a lot of them — this is Udaltsov’s third such strike since the parliamentary elections last December. On Tuesday, he was detained out the front of Astrakhan Oblast’s Moscow office, making this the third article in a row in which I have been forced to mention that the Left Front’s charismatic, entirely counterproductive leader has started a hunger strike, been arrested, or both.)

Every protest since March 10’s downbeat event on Moscow’s Novy Arbat — March 18’s against the NTV documentary Anatomy of a Protest at Moscow’s Ostankino television and radio tower; March 31’s on Pushkinskaya Ploschad, where Udaltsov announced that he will no longer protest “For Free and Fair Elections” but “For Fair and Legitimate Power” and “For Russia Without Putin”; April 8’s White Square and White Metro flash mobs — has been poorly attended, broken up by police, and sympathetically but quietly reported in the press.

Twenty-eight days away from his last meal and potentially only a few away from a heart attack, Shein, the opposition hopes, might be the figure who restores to their cause some of what it lost when, as Boris Akunin put it, the “romantic and euphoric” phase of their movement came to an end this time last month. But Shein should be wary of the company he keeps. These are people who, on March 5, were told that a police crackdown was imminent and deliberately ignored the warnings.

They are people who, on March 10, announced a march to one city square and then headed off in the opposite direction because they knew the police would be there to meet them and to serve them up a propaganda victory. As Chernyshevsky is said to have said: “The worse, the better.”

Not that a heart attack is going to save the opposition, of course. If anything, the sudden surge in interest in the Astrakhan hunger strike just goes to show the extent to which its failure is finally coming to a head. With the exception of having party registration laws changed, the opposition hasn’t been able to achieve any of its stated objectives — new parliamentary elections, the resignation of CEC chairman Vladimir Churov, the release of political prisoners, a second round run-off in the presidential election, protest turn-outs of half a million or more, and so on — on any of its chosen fields of battle. It has also declined to embrace new objectives and fields of battle in response.

Less than two months ago, oppositionists and their allies were arguing that the failure of the anti-Putin protests to draw large crowds outside of Moscow and St Petersburg didn’t especially matter because, as the American Enterprise Institutes Leon Aron mistakenly put it: “Putin has lost Moscow, and he has lost the intelligentsia. This means he has also lost the country. […] [W]e can almost certainly bet that Putin will not serve out his first six-year term.”

Putin may not have won a majority of votes in Moscow, but he certainly won more there than any of his competitors, and another full term of his rule now seems like a better bet than not. When Moscow’s protest numbers began to decline — dropping, according to RIA-Novosti’s relatively precise visual analysis, below 10,000 on Novy Arbat for the first time since December — those same oppositionists and writers began to say that the capital didn’t matter any more because protesters were beginning to fight for seats on municipal and regional councils, such as the one won by 20-year-old journalism student Vera Kichanova in the suburbs of Moscow on March 4, or more recently the mayoral position won by Yevgeny Urlashov in the region of Yaroslavl.

Indeed, no matter how much water the opposition takes on, the band continues to play its merry melodies. A recent Moscow Times article about a VTsIOM poll that had found that “the percentage of Russians who say they want to leave the country has dropped by half [to 11%] since last summer and is now lower than it was in the final days of the Soviet Union” serves as a useful example. Paraphrasing comments made by Memorial’s Svetlana Gannushkina in an interview with Kommersant, the paper said that “the findings cut to the core of what drove anti-Putin street protests, with those in the opposition now seeing themselves as empowered stakeholders in the country’s future who have a reason to stay”. In the very next sentence, however, the paper admitted that “the most likely emigrants are young people, with 25% of 18-24-year-olds saying they want to leave Russia, down from 39% in [last June’s] poll” and that “19% of active internet users and 25% of supporters of former presidential hopeful Mikhail Prokhorov say they want to leave”. It then quoted Yury Dzhinbladze, president of the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, who said that: “These are precisely the people who would like change.”

The message was clear: the country needs to change or the people who are willing to stay and change things will leave because nothing ever changes. It is difficult to know whether the paper left this instance of sugar-coated double-think in place to highlight it or, more likely, that it did so because it too was able to hold these two contradictory concepts in its mind at once.

That the opposition is a cynical beast should come as no surprise by now, however. What is rather more concerning is the niggling but nevertheless valid concern that there might be something inherently cynical, at least in this instance, about self-starvation as a political method, too. Shein has engaged in more than his fair share of the kind of baiting-and-switching that is becoming all too familiar inside the Kremlin walls and among those who wish to storm the same. His hunger strike began on the grounds that the CEC was deliberately hampering him by denying him access to the web camera footage and he said he would end it if the committee agreed to review the webcam footage in conjunction with his own representatives. The CEC has since said it would release the footage to him — or at least allow him and his supporters to download it — in its entirety.

Shein has continued the hunger strike on the grounds that he wants the footage released to him in bulk. He says his lawsuit will insist on this point, too, and in the meantime he’ll go hungry. Shein’s blog may be overflowing with comments from well-wishers who believe that he should end his strike on the grounds that the authorities have a vested interest in his shuffling off this mortal coil, but the fact remains that those authorities have already made a great many concessions in order to dissuade him from doing so, and probably not just to avoid an outcry or save their own skin, either.

Shein is the intractable one who keeps loading the gun and spinning it on the table. In fact, it seems increasingly clear that the hunger strike isn’t going to end unless a new election is announced, with or, most likely, without a thorough investigation into the allegations of fraud. While oppositionists like to say that they’re acting without concern for their own ambitions — “We are conducting this hunger strike for the return of Astrakhan’s right to choose who’s in power,” Shein wrote on on his blog yesterday afternoon, “not for my post” — to pretend that this isn’t a struggle for the mayoral office is disingenuous. He referred to it as “my post”.

That the election will be re-run is still a long-shot, of course, but there are signs to suggest that the former candidate may even get his way on this, too. In an interview with the internet newspaper Gazeta.ru published Tuesday, A Just Russia’s Dmitri Gudkov said that Astrakhan Oblast’s governor, Alexander Zhilkin, had told him in a private meeting that he might be willing to support such a solution. “Zhilkin said that the situation is very complicated,” Gudkov told reporters, “and that the best solution would be new elections. But he also added that both parties must come to the decision — that is, [the new election] must be agreed to the incumbent mayor of the city, Stolyarov. If Stolyarov is sure that he won fairly [then] of course he will agree to new elections.”

Actually, while someone who wins an election easily might be happy to agree to run another almost immediately, someone who believes he won one fairly might take umbrage at the fact that his opponent is effectively threatening to kill himself unless he, the victor, makes a tacit admission of wrongdoing and sends everybody back to the polls. (The judge considering Shein’s lawsuit is likely to face a similarly unsettling situation.)

This is doubtless why, late on Tuesday, after a meeting with Gudkov and several others, Stolyarov refused to do so and said that he would continue to refuse should the governor order him to. (Saved by Putin’s speech from doing so, Zhilkin yesterday adopted the party line and insisted that the courts are the only option.)

There are reasons to believe that Stolyarov won the election fairly, too. According to a report released on Tuesday by Astrakhan’s prosecutor’s office, all 118 polling stations highlighted by Shein in his initial complaint as potential sites of fraud, plus 16 others picked at random, were investigated for irregularities. A mere seven violations were uncovered. Moreover, the report continues, A Just Russia’s own election monitors signed off on all but 35 of the 202 stations’ final tallies.

Even if the results of these stations were to be discounted — hell, even if we were discount another 10 stations’ worth out of charity — those seeking a new election would still be short of the 51 required to force such an outcome. If Shein manages to force one by refusing to eat, the result will not be a victory for democracy and fair elections, but rather for blackmail masquerading as self-sacrifice. Stolyarov would win by a slightly reduced margin — but still by a clear majority — and every die-hard oppositionist between Kaliningrad and Vladivostok would have a new and entirely undemocratic, destabilising model for getting what they want.

To this extent, Shein’s behaviour is of a piece with that exhibited by the opposition’s leaders before and after the presidential election: promising protests before any evidence of vote-rigging had even come to light, protesting after they had acknowledged that the president-elect’s margin of victory was decisive even after the allegedly stolen votes had been discounted, and continuing to protest, not out of any genuine longing for fair elections and the rest of it, but rather out of a sense, indistinguishable from that felt by the authoritarian target of their ire, that any outcome they do not like is illegitimate by definition.

Peter Fray

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