Hunger striker Oleg Shein speaks to demonstrators in Astrakhan  Source: AFP/Getty Images
Hunger striker Oleg Shein speaks to demonstrators in Astrakhan Source: AFP/Getty Images

Demoralized as the Russian capital's protest movement may be, there are still plenty of angry people out in the hinterlands. They have less to lose than well-fed Muscovites, and president-elect Vladimir Putin has yet to figure out how to handle them.

In the southern provincial capital of Astrakhan, population 520,000, a soft-spoken, bespectacled historian named Oleg Shein has emerged as the new hope of the opposition. As of this writing, he has been on hunger strike for more than a month, putting his life on the line to prove that the city's mayoral elections were stolen from him. Federal officials, including Putin, have been forced to take notice.

Official data show that Shein -- a member of Fair Russia, a moderate leftist group that has a small faction in the lower house of Russia's parliament -- garnered only 30 percent of the vote in Astrakhan, compared with 60 percent for Mikhail Stolyarov, the candidate for Putin's party, United Russia. Shein points out numerous irregularities in the vote count. In eight out of 10 polling stations equipped with ballot scanners, he won. In many others, the tallying process was obscured from the specially installed video cameras. Results recorded by observers did not match those reported by the election commission.

It took a while for Shein's hunger strike to receive national attention. Eight days after he stopped eating, a parliamentary commission visited Astrakhan and recommended that he cease his fast and seek redress in the courts. Shein refused, demanding that he first receive official videos from the polling stations, which he would need to make his case. The Central Election Commission dragged its feet on releasing the videos.

Sixteen days into the hunger strike, federal legislators from Shein's party held a rally in Astrakhan that attracted only 250 people. About a week later, another demonstration, featuring leading opposition figures such as television star Leonid Parfyonov and blogger Alexei Navalny, gathered about 1000 people. Moscow media started reporting extensively from the backwater Volga River city. The coverage sometimes gave the surreal impression of a traveling political circus, with visiting celebrities getting into fights with pro-Putin locals and wrangling with police over the right to inflate mattresses in a central square.

Shein was grateful for the support. “It so happens that Astrakhan today is the place where two Russias have collided,” the mayoral candidate told Radio Liberty. “The Russia of crooks and thieves and the Russia of honest citizens.”

Veterans of last winter's protest rallies shared the sentiment. “We have an opportunity to make history take the course we want,” wrote blogger Vladislav Naganov. “It is time to show the insolent crooks their place. No one should be able to falsify elections and then keep on enjoying life as if nothing was wrong.”

Putin commented on the affair in parliament last week. “Why stop eating?” he said. “It's still possible that the court will sort things out and everyone will agree with its decision." The Fair Russia faction walked out, considering Putin's response a mockery. “I do not remember a single court case anyone has won against the prime minister or United Russia," said the faction's wealthiest member, billionaire Sergei Petrov.

The political pilgrimage to Astrakhan, and to the now skeletal Shein, gathered momentum. Celebrity socialite Ksenia Sobchak made a show of collecting money to buy tickets to Astrakhan for Moscow protesters, and traveled south to support Shein's cause, handing policemen white flowers and exhorting locals to show no fear.

Going hungry for more than a month can, it turns out, open quite a few doors. The infamous head of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, blamed by protesters for falsifying the parliamentary election last December, agreed to watch the videos with Shein. After an all-night viewing session, for which the Astrakhan politician flew to Moscow, the Election Commission said it saw no reason for a repeat vote or even a recount.

Technically, Shein has lost: There is little chance the courts will uphold his claims now that electoral officials have seen the evidence and found it less than convincing. On another level, though, he has achieved a sort of victory. “The whole country knows who he is, and thousands of people are willing to travel thousands of miles for him," Andrei Babitsky wrote on Forbes.ru. "What more could a politician need?"

Shein's continuing hunger strike is, in a way, more dangerous to Putin than Moscow's rather placid rallies had been. What would happen in the tragic event that he starved to death? Would Astrakhan explode, and would protest spread throughout the Russian provinces? Whatever happens, Shein has demonstrated that the hinterland could, if handled wrong, provide the opposition with a much stronger and more desperate base of support than Moscow ever did.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: bershidsky@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.