Russian exclave of Kaliningrad at forefront of a nationwide protest movement
Saturday, March 20, 2010
KALININGRAD, RUSSIA -- Almost every Friday for more than a year, a small band of dockworkers, sailors and other stubborn souls has gathered outside the governor's office in this Russian Baltic port to denounce hospital closings and other cuts in health services. Week after week, the governor ignored the protests, which seemed insignificant in the context of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's top-down political system.
But he is not ignoring them anymore -- and neither is Putin.
In recent months, the protesters have joined thousands of others upset by the failing economy here in larger demonstrations against local authorities. In doing so, they have helped thrust Kaliningrad, Russia's westernmost city, to the forefront of a disjointed, nationwide protest movement that has rattled the Kremlin and sent its operatives scrambling to put out political fires across the country.
The protests have mostly been small and focused on regional issues. But because they have taken place in at least a dozen provinces and tapped into shared anger over Russia's worst recession in a decade, many observers are asking if the formula that has kept Putin in power so long -- steady economic growth and tightening political controls -- might be failing.
In an attempt to transform the scattered local outbursts into something bigger, opposition leaders have scheduled simultaneous protests Saturday in more than 20 cities across the country.
The Kremlin has been especially worried about the protests in Kaliningrad, capital of a province of the same name located far from the rest of Russia between Lithuania and Poland, because the public has long viewed the exclave as a symbol of Moscow's ability to deliver prosperity on par with that of the rest of Europe.
In mid-December, 5,000 to 7,000 residents rallied in the city's central square against a host of unpopular decisions by the unelected governor, Gyorgy Boos, including raising a hefty tax on owners of cars, motorcycles and boats. Then in late January, a crowd at least twice as large braved subzero temperatures to fill the plaza again, calling for Boos's resignation and an end to what they called the "monopoly on power" enjoyed by Putin's ruling party, United Russia.
The size of the demonstration, perhaps the largest anywhere in Russia in more than a decade, and the explicit political demands appeared to take the Kremlin by surprise. Organizers have vowed to bring 50,000 people into the streets of this city of 430,000 for their next protest, which had been scheduled for Saturday but has since been canceled, and Moscow has sent a string of senior officials to defuse the situation.
'We were not alone'
For a government accustomed to keeping its critics at odds with each other, the most unnerving development in Kaliningrad may be the emergence of a broad and relatively stable coalition of opposition parties and activist groups.
"We kept coming here and protesting, appealing to the public and to the city. Then we found we were not alone," said Vladimir Ustinov, 67, a retired teacher who took part Friday in the 65th protest outside the governor's office in the past 18 months. "Now, people believe in their own strength, and we're getting closer to victory."
Konstantin Doroshok, 40, a plain-spoken electrician who is the most prominent of the protest leaders here, said Kaliningrad's experience could serve as a model for mobilizing the public against Putin's semi-authoritarian political system elsewhere.
"People have been calling from other regions, asking how they can do the same thing we have done," he said, adding that he tells them to avoid abstract political slogans and to focus instead on bread-and-butter issues.
In Kaliningrad, he said, that means government plans to end subsidies that keep the isolated region competitive; to raise utility fees and the transportation tax; and to shutter public hospitals and clinics, even as unemployment climbs and businesses struggle.
"The opposition in Moscow and other regions can't just talk about freedom and equality," said Solomon Ginsburg, another protest leader. "They have to talk about the concrete problems that people face, because people are really hurting. Only then will people be interested in democracy."
The protesters have focused their ire on Boos, a Moscow businessman, appointed by Putin in 2004, who is viewed as a corrupt outsider. But they have also held up signs declaring, "Putin is responsible for Boos," and chanted slogans such as, "No to Putin's plan!"
Demobilized veterans of Russia's shrinking Baltic fleet, which is based in Kaliningrad, and small-business owners, who account for as much as 70 percent of the local economy, have been critical to the success of the protests.
"In my work, I have to deal with the government every day, and that means I deal with lawlessness every day," said Alexander Agiyevich, 28, a protest leader who owns and runs an architectural firm.
Another factor is Kaliningrad's geographic location next to Lithuania and Poland, countries with average incomes about 65 and 100 percent higher than in the Russian exclave. Residents also complain about their isolation, arguing that Moscow has done little to persuade their neighbors to grant them visa-free access.
'A good lesson'
The government has responded to the protests with a mix of promises, concessions and threats. Boos has shuffled his cabinet, dismissing the health minister, and pledged to lower taxes and address the opposition's other concerns.
"For us, it's been a good lesson," said Konstantin Polyakov, deputy chairman of the local parliament and a member of the ruling party. "We didn't take all the economic factors into account."
But police have also put pressure on protest organizers, conducting tax inspections and hinting at more trouble if they keep it up.
The approach appears to have bought the Kremlin some time, with Doroshok abruptly canceling plans for the Saturday protest, a decision that has strained the opposition coalition. He said that authorities would allow the protest only in a dangerously isolated location and that a sympathetic official had told him police intended to provoke a deadly clash there and use it to discredit the protesters.
Residents may still take to the streets. But Arseny Makhlov, editor of Kaliningrad's most popular newspaper, said the region has passed a point of no return in any case. "The important thing has already happened," he said. "People have stopped being indifferent."