As of the time of this publication, Oleg Shein, a Russian opposition leader and the likely winner of the recent mayoral election in Astrakhan, is entering the 28th day of a hunger strike. According to press reports, he has lost 10 kilos (22 pounds) and is suffering from rapid heartbeat; his skin is the color of a parchment. “He does not have much time,” warned Elizaveta Glinka, a doctor and philanthropist who visited Shein in Astrakhan. “He may die in the next few days—if not from exhaustion, then from a heart attack.” Several activists who are on a hunger strike with Shein are in a similar condition. “Everyone decides for himself,” Shein blogged earlier this week. “The highest value for me is the freedom of my country.”
On March 4th, Astrakhan, a city of half a million people on the Volga River, held a mayoral election. According to official results, pro-Kremlin candidate Mikhail Stolyarov defeated former opposition member of Parliament Oleg Shein by 60 percent to 30. Violations were staggering even by the standards of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Dozens of cases, including closed vote counts, the refusal to show ballots to poll monitors, the outright removal of monitors, and the rewriting of protocols, have been documented and published online. According to Shein, some 120 (of 203) polling places in Astrakhan did not have vote counts at all: their electoral commissions (composed mostly of city hall employees) simply produced the official tallies in favor of Stolyarov. Meanwhile, the returns from polling places where ballots were counted automatically by machines showed Shein ahead of Stolyarov by 45 percent to 42.
After local officials refused to hear their complaints, Shein and a group of supporters went on hunger strike—the last resort to draw the country’s attention. Their demand is not to declare Shein mayor, but to hold a new election that would meet basic standards of fairness. Vote fraud in Astrakhan has been acknowledged by a working group of Russia’s central electoral commission, a special parliamentary commission, and the presidential human rights council. Yet legal challenges by Shein’s campaign were futile without access to Web-camera recordings from the majority of the city’s polling places. The central electoral commission initially gave Shein just 17 recordings. As the hunger strike approached its fourth week, the authorities retreated and promised Shein to release video recordings from all of Astrakhan’s 203 polling places on Thursday. This, so far, has been the only concession by the authorities. Regional prosecutors concluded that violations were insignificant and “could not impact the reliability of the vote count”; the officially declared mayor, Mikhail Stoylarov, has ruled out resigning; while the governor of Astrakhan region, Alexander Zhilkin, categorically declared that “there will be no new elections,” and tried to offer Shein a position in his administration. “Do they really think that everyone is for sale?” wondered the mayoral candidate as he rejected the proposal.
Prominent anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny has called on opposition activists from across the country to travel to Astrakhan to support the protesters. He is already in the city, along with Duma members Sergei Mironov, Ilya Ponomaryov, and Dmitri Gudkov. Despite the lack of official “sanction,” spontaneous rallies in support of Shein are being held in the city center, with the largest protest planned for Saturday. “This is a question of life and death,” stressed Navalny. For Oleg Shein and his supporters, this is anything but hyperbole.
Photo Credit: Fred Schaerli