Oleg Shein, a mild-mannered member of the opposition movement, came before Western audiences last week to discuss corruption in Russia. Shein was the Just Russia mayoral candidate in Astrakhan, a major city in the southwest of the country. After March elections brought victory to his opponent, Mikhail Stolyarov of the United Russia Party, Shein staged a protest in the form of a 40-day hunger strike. Supporters of Shein and anti-corruption activists also joined the strike to draw attention to election fraud.
At first glance, Shein is not the type of man who looks like he would pose a threat to corruption in Russia, but as the conversation turned to political rights, Shein’s determination and commitment to the cause was evident. Speaking at the Swiss Press Club in Geneva on Thursday (27 September), Shein explained that he had been visiting Western audiences in order to raise support and awareness of the falsified elections of 4 March. Although the victim himself of a fraudulent electoral process, Shein indicated that his focus was not on his own election, but on saving the city of Astrakhan from mafia-like government.
Illustrating the scale of the problem in Astrakhan, Shein accused the city government of deliberate destruction of property for monetary gain: “in the past seven years, 70 houses were burned in the city, which is an old and historical city. Thirty-five people died in the process. The houses were burned down to free-up space for new building projects. It must be understood that with the burning of a house, the territory comes under the ownership of the municipality. Today, city property is managed by a person who had spent time in jail with a famous criminal organization and was extradited to Russia for the trafficking of falsified Greek passports.”
The election, in the eyes of Shein and his supporters, was the last hope of eliminating such criminals from the municipal government. As results were announced, however, evidence of electoral fraud surfaced. “On election day, with the help of the police, the Election Commission eliminated the election observers and simply refused to show the markings on the voting ballots,” said Shein, displaying a copy of what he explained to be a court decision confirming the violations. “We have an incredible database of information.” In addition to the complaints of election observers, Shein indicated that he and his followers had gathered a collection of surveillance videos, posted on YouTube, showing Election Commission officials leaving before counting votes and refusing to show observers the markings on the ballots. With such evidence pointing to fraud, Shein attempted to make his case for annulment of the election results by appealing to local courts. He lost every time. “Russian Courts have concluded that our Election Commission can know the will of the electorate without allowing them to see the voting ballots.”
While the concurrent hunger strike did not achieve the annulment of the election results, Shein believes that it achieved two very important objectives. Firstly, video surveillance will now be installed at polling stations. Secondly, polling stations will be equipped with voting machines. Both technologies are intended to reduce election fraud. While surveillance cameras can help to prove violations, the voting machines help to reduce it. As Shein explained, “the difference between where there were automatic voting machines and where there weren’t is 37 percent. So, a candidate who received 40 percent of the votes would have either 77 percent or 3 percent according to the Election Commission. In Moscow, the difference was 16 percent.” At the same time, Shein refuses to place all of his hopes in technology, remaining committed instead to a bottom-up approach and increased participation in governance.
Despite some gains on the domestic front, Shein is currently appealing to European and international actors to assist in spurring change in Russia. He met last week with the French Socialist Party and colleagues from the European Parliament in Brussels, as well as with Russian expatriates, who are engaged on the issue of democratic reform. In Geneva, Shein was specifically interested in seeking help from the UN Human Rights Council. Although he believed that Russian delegates would react coldly to his complaint, he expressed hope that the Council would encourage Russia to annul the election results. If the request is taken into consideration, it will most likely be on the agenda of the next session of the Council, scheduled for February-March 2013.
(Photo © Ziyoda Kurbanova for The Global Journal)