Instead of being a force to galvanize a new round of opposition enthusiasm, the efforts to protest the recent mayoral election in Astrakhan have served only to emphasize the weakness and indeed dissolution being experienced by the opposition forces.
The Just Russia party promised that every single one of its deputies in Moscow would travel to Astrakhan to rally in support of Oleg Shein, their defeated candidate for Astrakhan mayor who claims fraud denied him the office. But in the event, less than a third of the deputies (Russian-language link) actually made the trip.
Just Russia, of course, is hardly a focal point of the opposition. Though it had a place on the ballot last December, none of the opposition leaders endorsed it much less participated in its operations, and it has always been thought of as a Kremlin patsy.
The focus on Astrakhan resulted in major reporting in the Washington Post and the New York Times about the city and its political leanings. But what the reporters found when they looked was disheartening: Little access to the Internet, and even less interest in the criticism of Putin to be found there. The people of Astrakhan simply don’t care about democracy or about Shein’s fate, and the arrival of the glitterati from Moscow (like Aleksei Navalny and Ksenia Sobchak) came with a resounding thud.
An absurdly small number of people turned out for the Moscow-led protest demonstrations, and many of them had been brought in from outside the city — a practice that was condemned by the opposition leaders when Putin tried it in Moscow. Putin scoffed at the protests and defied them. Larger demonstrations were organized in support of the status quo. Soon, local elections officials were turning the tables and accusing Shein himself of fraud.
So all the protests in Astrakhan managed to accomplish was to remind the world how confused, disorganized and isolated the opposition movement is now. When the opposition leaders say that it doesn’t matter that protest activity has dissolved in Moscow because they are seeking real political power in the remote regions, their claims ring hollow. There is no groundswell of support in the regions for opposition reform, the regions are where Putin is strongest.