MOSCOW Russia admitted on Wednesday that some irregularities had taken place in the course of a disputed mayoral election in a southern Russian city last month, after the victory of a pro-Kremlin candidate there set off a wave of anti-government protests.
The disputed election in Astrakhan has become a focus for the opposition as it tries to breathe new life into its protest movement which has lost steam since Vladimir Putin was elected president for a six-year term on March 4.
Street rallies against alleged electoral fraud and a prolonged hunger strike by a defeated opposition candidate have thrust the events in the otherwise sleepy Caspian city into the heart of Russia's political fray.
On Wednesday, Russia's top election official Vladimir Churov said there had been some irregularities after all.
"Unfortunately, I have to state that video footage showed some real procedural violations in handling documents after the polling stations' closure," Churov told the state Vesti 24 TV channel. "We will look into it very thoroughly."
Churov added however he had seen no evidence of fraud that could overturn the victory of Mikhail Stolyarov, a candidate from a pro-Kremlin party in the Astrakhan vote.
"In what I saw on Monday night I did not see any facts of falsifications, like shifting ballots from one pile to another, attempts to put something into the transparent ballot box and so on, there was nothing like this," Churov said.
Oleg Shein, the defeated opposition candidate, began the hunger strike along with his supporters on March 16, saying the vote had been rigged in favour of his rival. He has vowed not to eat until a new vote is held.
As the events unfolded, Astrakhan has turned into the latest staging point in the opposition's new strategy to chip away at Putin's authority through local polls in the regions.
Hundreds of activists from Moscow, the scene of recent anti-putin protests, have descended on the city in the Volga river delta to support Shein, a former parliament member from the opposition Just Russia party.
The Just Russia party faction walked out from parliament last week after Putin suggested that Shein take his case to court instead of staging a hunger strike.
In his public statements, the bespectacled and frail Shein has been careful not to attack Putin directly, blaming the situation on local authorities and Vyacheslav Volodin, the influential deputy head of the Kremlin administration.
Shein's supporters argue that results at polling stations equipped with electronic ballot boxes showed him running neck-to-neck with his rival, while his opponents say that the 30 percentage points lead was impossible to falsify.
Putin ordered the installation of video cameras at polling stations after the victory of his United Russia party in a December parliamentary vote was challenged by the opposition.
Churov said his conclusions on the Astrakhan vote will be published this week but added the final decision should be made by the court, due to hold its first hearing on Friday.
(Reporting by Gleb Bryanski Editing by Maria Golovnina)