Thousands of protesters rallied Saturday in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan to support a hunger-striking politician who alleges a recent mayoral race was marred by fraud, the latest show of determination by opposition forces. Shouting slogans such as “Astrakhan will be free,” the protesters for about four hours marched through the city, stopping at a park, a square and the politician’s headquarters, under the eye of phalanxes of police. At least three arrests were reported. The case of Oleg Shein. who claims the fraud denied him his rightful victory in the mayor’s race last month, has become prime cause for opposition figures who were at the forefront of this winter’s unprecedented huge protests in Moscow. Those protests and other large ones in St. Petersburg were sparked by reports of extensive fraud in December’s national parliamentary elections and they continued as the March 4 presidential election approached.
Vladimir Putin, the architect of Russia’s tightly controlled politics, won a six-year term as president in that election and showed disdain for protesters demands for changes. Concerns arose about whether the opposition would be able to maintain its momentum in the face of that victory. Many have increasingly focused on local rather than national politics, and the demonstration in Astrakhan attracted some of the opposition’s leading figures, including anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny and Ilya Ponomarev, a parliament member from the Just Russia party.