Russia: Astrakhan Becomes Opposition's New Rallying Cause

On March 7, 2012, a young man named Roman Shar created a LiveJournal account to publicize [ru] his experience as an election monitor in this year's national elections. Based in Kazan at Voting Station 208, Shar described the night of March 4, when he served as an observer from Mikhail Prokhorov‘s campaign, registered through Aleksei Navalny's Rosvybory initiative.

The evening began simply enough: an entourage of sweet-seeming middle-aged schoolteachers (serving as election commission staff) laid out Russian pancakes and tea, while other schoolteachers (serving as monitors) watched passively, with some surreptitiously grading student papers instead of observing the voting in progress. “Everything was going ideally,” Shar explained, before adding:

Generally speaking, they conversed rather pleasantly [with the public]. And it was no surprise, as most of the election commission members were from the local school staff, and the parents [coming to vote] were well acquainted with them. They're all neighbors. If only they knew just how callously and cynically these teachers stole their votes, they'd probably have conversed a bit differently.

Shar went on to describe how the election staff, as well as the other observers, suddenly turned on him once the counting process began, when monitors were barred from taking seats near enough to read the ballots being reviewed. Trying to take a seat closer to the ballots, Shar was accused of attempting to falsify the count (which itself failed to observe several key procedures established by federal law). In the end, Shar tried to lodge a formal complaint, but the authorities rejected the paperwork because of a small typo.

Woman votes for candidate during Russia's presidential election in St. Petersburg. Photo by YURY GOLDENSHTEIN, copyright © Demotix (04/03/12)

Woman votes for candidate during Russia's presidential election in St. Petersburg. Photo by YURY GOLDENSHTEIN, copyright © Demotix (04/03/12)

Shar's blog post generated some discussion — over 500 comments [ru] and a retweet [ru] from activist Alexey Navalny — but the story soon faded into the oblivion of the winter's spent revolution.

Roughly 900 miles to the south, in Astrakhan, the supporters of mayoral candidate Oleg Shein encountered roughly the same electoral fraud that so overwhelmed Roman Shar. Unlike in Kazan, however, Mr. Shein's case has not faded away — indeed, it's fast growing nationally, becoming the biggest rallying point for an anti-Kremlin opposition that has spent the last month struggling to rediscover its direction.

On March 16, Shein announced a hunger strike to protest the illegalities that he claims robbed him of the mayor's office in the March 4 Astrakhan election. Today, that hunger strike is entering its fourth week, with rumors flying that participants’ lives are in danger.

What is it about Shein's case that has so galvanized the Russian opposition? One strength appears to be a firm grasp of electoral law, which Shein and a large network of local bloggers have demonstrated in a growing online archive of documented fraud, hosted on individual LiveJournal accounts. That archive is also painstakingly specific [ru] about the laws being violated, focusing primarily on Federal Law 67 (67-FZ) [en], which protects citizens’ basic rights in public referendums.

Shein and his supporters have published studies of individual voting stations, highlighting how the required procedures laid out in Article 68 of 67-FZ were routinely violated — procedures such as proper access for observers and their right to examine ballots. If Shein is able to demonstrate that observers were illegally impeded in more than 25% of Astrakhan's voting precincts (51 out of 203), the law would empower a court or the Central Elections Commission to cancel the March 4 result and issue a fresh election.

Shein claims [ru] that more than 120 voting stations experienced fraud, but — to prove it — his campaign needs the video footage recorded by the state's armada of webcams. While the Central Elections Committee has reviewed [ru] a random selection of the Astrakhan webcam archives and acknowledged 17 independent cases of fraud (disqualifying the results of 17 separate voting stations), the authorities have refused to grant Shein's team access to the full video archives, effectively preventing any conclusive documentation of the 25% fraud claim.

A prolific blogger himself, Shein has also benefited from a digital outreach campaign that owes much to the efforts of several Astrakhan LiveJournal users, notably Aleksandr Cheldyshev, Sergei Kozhanov, and user escoman. These individuals have compiled data from individual polling stations, culling information from the media, YouTube, and each other. Cheldyshev has collected [ru] video footage and signed affidavits from observers corroborating fraud in 23 different voting stations. The list is still growing.

Escoman's archive [ru] is the most impressive, combining station-specific reports from Kozhanov and others, analyses of Astrakhan's election irregularities and electoral patterns, as well as profiles about specific commission figures and an expanding index of information about Shein's hunger strike. Escoman's work was even acknowledged by Masha Gessen in a New York Times’ Latitude blog piece [en], published on April 9.

Shein's supporters have also had extraordinary success in captivating nationally prominent Russian bloggers. For instance, Cheldyshev caught the attention of Vladislav Naganov (one of Navalny's favorite bloggers) with a post [ru] about Voting Station 426, where Shein's opponent, Mikhail Stoliarov, received his fourth highest turnout. There, observers were seated without a view of the counting process, which was carried out with several fundamental violations of Article 68 of 67-FZ. Writing about Station 469 (where commission officials falsified the vote tally by reversing the totals for Stoliarov and Shein), two other Astrakhan LiveJournal users, Aleksandr Darianov and Evgeniia Zarinsh, inspired the following angry declaration [ru] from Naganov:

If this voting station chairperson believes she can escape a prison sentence of as many as four years for violating Article 142.1 of the Criminal Code [falsification of election results], then we guarantee this: the very instant that power changes hands in this country, we will endeavor to do everything to ensure that she sits in jail for just that long, and not a day less. And if Oleg Shein dies from his hunger strike (which he had to undertake in part because of [the chairperson's] criminal actions), her prison term will be even longer.

In the past few days, Shein's cause made its latest resurgence in the headlines, when “Fair Aid” founder Elizaveta Glinka and anti-narcotics activist Evgeny Roizman posted comments to their LiveJournal accounts suggesting that imminent deaths were likely in the Astrakhan hunger strike. Despite some initial confusion (wherein Shein seemed to refute Glinka's diagnosis as “total nonsense” in an interview [ru] with RIA Novosti), the three are friends again, after Shein issued a clarification [ru] on his own blog, denying that he had ever criticized Glinka. In a particularly electric development, Navalny himself set out for Astrakhan to meet with Shein on April 9, writing in his blog [ru]:

I am going to Astrakhan today personally. I call on you to do the same. This is about an elementary solidarity that we can demonstrate here. Otherwise, what good are all the times we said ‘One for all and all for one'?

Screenshot of the Facebook group in support of Oleg Shein.

In that post, Navalny shared links to LiveJournal user kesh0705, who published the schedule, cost, and seat availability of train tickets between Moscow and Astrakhan, departing on April 9 and 10. Navalny also publicized Facebook and VKontakte social groups in support of traveling to Astrakhan to aid Oleg Shein. The Facebook group (true to the site's more elite status in Russia) can be joined only by invitation, and currently includes several stars of the liberal democratic movement, including Ilya Yashin, Oleg Kashin, Ilya Klishin, Ilya Barabanov, Ilya Azar, Oleg Kozlovsky, Evgenia Chirikova, and Tatiana Felgengauer.


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