February 07, 2010

Kaliningrad Rising

February 3, 2010

By Roland Oliphant
Russia Profile

A Rare Show of Unity Amongst the Opposition Parties, the Largest Anti-Government Protest in Years, and a Governor in Trouble – Is There Something Different About Kaliningrad?

The horror of Kaliningrad is its Baltic temperatures. But that didn’t stop some 10,000 people from showing up for a rally to protest a hike in transportation tax and import duties. Organized by an unlikely alliance of opposition parties ranging from the Communist Party (KPRF) to the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) and the pro-democracy Solidarnost movement, the protest was the largest in Russia in the past ten years.

The size of the demonstration was unprecedented. While the police estimated the crowd at around 7,000, the organizers cited a figure of anything from 10,000 to 12,000 people. Konstantin Doroshok, the leader of the Kaliningrad branch of Solidarnost, one of the opposition movements which helped to organize the demonstration, said the real number could have been higher, had it not been for hedging by the authorities and the Baltic enclave’s notoriously harsh weather. “When we first applied for the demonstration we estimated that about 15,000 people would attend,” said Doroshok. “But the authorities fenced off the area to restrict numbers. Then there’s the weather – there was snow, frost, wind – lots of people have said they wanted to go but decided not to come because of the weather, especially if they had children.”

United against United Russia

The organizers from the official opposition parties like the KPRF and LDPR that have factions in the State Duma, to the more marginalized Solidarnost, whose leaders include Boris Nemtsov and Gary Kasparov, are all political movements with their own ideological agendas. But the protestors they attracted to the streets were motivated by that perennial and most mundane of grievance of malcontented publics everywhere and in all ages – money.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was a decision by Georgy Boos, the governor of the Kaliningrad Region since 2005, to use powers granted him under an amendment to the tax code to set the base rate of transport tax in his region. Apparently sensing the public mood, he cancelled that plan two days before the protest, but it was too late – and while it was the catalyst, it was far from the only grievance.

A resolution drawn up at the end of the demonstration centered on the cancellation of the transport tax hike and called for the law (clause 2, article 31 of the tax code) that allows regional governments to set the base tax rate to be repealed. But it also included demands that the transport tax be included in the price of petrol; that fuel costs be reduced (and the dependency of domestic prices on the oil price in foreign exchanges be ended); that customs barriers on importing used cars should be dropped (like Vladivostok in the Far East, Kaliningrad does a brisk trade in importing second-hand cars from abroad); that taxes be frozen until the end of the economic crisis; that Kaliningraders’ pensions be increased; and, of course, that Georgy Boos resign.

The Kaliningrad region is small by Russian standards – with a population of around one million, about half of whom live in the city of Kaliningrad – it is a fraction the size of the Moscow or Leningrad Regions. The fact that it produced the largest demonstration for the best part of a decade is above all “indicative of the level of discontent with the activities of the authorities,” said Doroshok.

Kaliningrad, of course, is not quite Russia. Sandwiched as it is between Poland and Lithuania, regional political parties receive “about half the attention from the federal authorities” as their counterparts do in the rest of the country, reckons Doroshok. And like Vladivostok, which has also seen anti-government demonstrations in the past couple of years, its proximity to other countries allows its citizens to see that another life is possible. “We can see that groceries are half the price and wages are twice as high over the border,” he added.

But those factors were helped along by an unusual level of unity displayed by the usually fractious opposition groups. According to Doroshok, the cooperation was born of a common understanding that United Russia is exploiting their divisions. The parties agreed to put their political differences aside to back a non-political movement called Spravedlivost (“Justice”) that took on the organization of the meeting. In this sense, focusing on near-universal concerns about taxes, rather than ideology, paid off. Banners with slogans like “United Russia – United against Russians!” left little doubt as to who the demonstrators blamed for their troubles.

But despite openly anti-government sentiment, including placards calling on President Dmitry Medvedev to fire Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the crowd’s real ire was reserved for its governor.

Its not just ordinary citizens who have an axe to grind. “He came from Moscow, and was pretty aggressive with regard to regional political and business elites,” said Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional affairs at the Carnegie Moscow Center. The size and timing of the protest – not long before Boos’ first term as governor ends in September 2010 – may indicate that the organizers had powerful backers, suggested Petrov. “A massive demonstration of this scale would only be possible if some members of the regional political elite are participating in or at least backing it,” he said.

Petrov did not elaborate on what form such “inspiration” from members of the political elite might have taken, but it is a charge Doroshok denies. “There might be political clans in United Russia, but we had no contact with them. We just raised economic questions, and people came to protest. It was entirely about social and economic policies,” he said.

Either way, the obvious antipathy toward Boos on behalf of a large portion of the Kaliningrad public and his failure to prevent the largest anti-government demonstration has raised questions about his political future. The president’s envoy to the North Western Federal District flew to the region on Sunday, swiftly followed by a high-ranking delegation from United Russia. An apparent attempt by Boos to assuage the protestors by suggesting to put an “against all” option on electoral ballots, released in a statement on Monday, was quickly stamped on by the party leadership. Boos’ office retracted it and the Untied Russia denied such a suggestion had even been made (“it’s expensive and leads nowhere,” wrote Boos in a retraction posted on the United Russia Web site).

All that may make him political toast. But his future is in the hands of President Dmitry Medvedev, rather than the voters of Kaliningrad (the abolition of gubernatorial elections in 2004 was another of the grievances voiced on Saturday), and Boos has so far been a rising star in the United Russia fold. “He’s strongly supported by United Russia, and there were rumors that there might be a job for him in Moscow if Mayor Yuri Luzhkov is replaced,” said Petrov. “The question is whether and how he can reach an agreement with the protestors and avoid a repetition, and above all, avoid creating a precedent for taking to the streets against unpopular governors.”

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