The Russian authorities barely had time to breathe a collective sigh of relief – presidential elections are over and opposition activity in the two capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg, has perceptibly declined - than the Russian regions started up with their own brand of protest.
First, a mayoral runoff election in the industrial city of Yaroslavl brought to power a disenchanted former member of the ruling United Russia party, Yevgeny Urlashov, now a darling of the opposition.
Then, in the historic city of Astrakhan in the Volga delta, a standoff over a disputed mayoral election became nationwide news. Oleg Shein, a former MP for A Just Russia – a left-of-center parliamentary party that styles itself as social-democratic - says he was denied victory in a contest with (surprise-surprise!) a United Russia candidate.
A Just Russia and Shein allege widespread cheating, ballot stuffing and a plethora of other vote-rigging schemes. Shein and several of his supporters started a hunger strike, which had little effect until Moscow opposition leaders took notice and descended on the city to organise a series of highly successful protests.
At first the residents of Astrakhan needed a bit of warming up, but once they caught on to with the idea, there was no stopping the outpouring of rage against the local authorities, who have alternated between threats (“Kick the Moscow invaders out!”) and conciliation (offering Shein a post in either the regional or city administration).
In the end Moscow had no choice but to intervene: Vladimir Churov, the man in charge of Russia’s Kafkaesque Central Electoral Commission and widely perceived to be the main perpetrator of election fraud, agreed to meet with Shein and watch footage from the web cameras installed at Astrakhan polling stations.
Shein claimed that the recordings proved massive falsifications. Churov saw otherwise.
Shein vowed to continue his hunger strike until the election results are canceled and a new vote scheduled. Naturally, the Kremlin thinks otherwise.
For the authorities to concede Shein’s point is to accept public humiliation and the inevitable defeat of their mayoral candidate. For Shein (who already said he is prepared to die for justice) it is a matter of principle not to back down.
Most observers claim only Vladimir Putin’s intervention could resolve the situation. But he has distanced himself from the problem, suggesting that Shein should file a complaint in a court. And he has. But no one believes that anything will come of it. The courts uphold the government’s position as a matter of routine. They are in fact part of the vast repressive machine of the state, not the independent mediators and problem solvers they should be.
Although in this particular instance, it appears likely Shein will eventually end his hunger strike, there are several lessons to be drawn from what has happened.
Firstly, desire for change and better governance is growing in Russia’s numerous, diverse and frequently poor regions. This demand is fueled not so much by attachment to abstract ideals of democracy and freedom but by desperation born of the authorities’ incompetence and corruption. Indeed, dismal municipal infrastructure served as a catalyst for opposition sentiment in both Yaroslavl and Astrakhan.
The demand in the Russian provinces is for opposition figures that are generally left wing (but not extreme), perceived as clean and oriented towards practical problem solving.
Secondly, although the Kremlin is still strong enough to prevent the opposition from winning elections (in most cases), it cannot prevent opponents from participating in regional elections and offering citizens a real alternative.
In short, more and more often Russians see vote stealing as equivalent to stealing money or property – a crime. That limits the authorities’ ability to rig the vote and, in turn, leads to more and more scandals riling the general public.
Thirdly, leading opposition activists, from blogger Alexei Navalny to TV presenter and glamour girl Ksenia Sobchak – the darlings of the Moscow café society – have a harder time in places like Astrakhan, where Internet penetration is low, social networks play no role in mobilizing political activists and state TV and radio still rule supreme.
Which means, fourthly, that developing effective networks of activists in the regions should become a priority for established and, especially, nascent political parties. Opposition leaders from Moscow cannot and should not turn itself into a sort of emergency response team that has to be on standby all the time, ready to harness local opposition feelings and whip the dormant populace into action.
Fifthly, all this means that real politics have returned to the Russian life for good. It will be a growing trend that no amount of government interference will stop. The best the Kremlin can do is to be ready to compete honestly in an increasingly tough environment.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.