Exclave’s 10,000-strong protest rocks Russian politics

Thu Feb 4, 2010 8:24am EST
By Conor Humphries

KALININGRAD, Russia, Feb 4 (Reuters) – Months after losing his job, 53-year-old mechanic Alexei Dementyev trudged through heavy snow for his first opposition protest, standing with 10,000 people for a rally that shook Russia’s political system.
Growing unemployment, surging costs and crumbling public services in the Baltic region of Kaliningrad united rival opposition forces on Saturday for one of the largest protests in Russia since Vladimir Putin came to power a decade ago.
The Kremlin sent an envoy on Monday in an apparent bid to understand how two planks of its system of rule — the division of the opposition and the careful control of public dissent — had buckled so easily in its westernmost province.
“The authorities have pushed the people to the limit,” said Dementyev, whose has struggled to pay rising bills since he lost his job in August. “The TV keeps telling us that everything is okay, but people can see that’s just not the case.”
The protest startled the Kremlin “because of its scale — 10,000 is simply too many people”, said Nikolai Petrov, an expert on Russia’s regions with the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “It is crucial for the Kremlin to avoid an escalation.”
Analysts said the government must have been stunned also at the sight of Russia’s most disparate opposition forces standing side-by-side after years of bickering.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s nationalist party and the opposition Communists, mainstays of a Kremlin-dominated system that tolerates only the mildest of dissent, joined liberal group Solidarity and the National Bolsheviks, parties dismissed by the authorities as extremists and blocked from electoral politics.
“The social situation reached the point where we had to lay aside our differences,” said Communist Party activist Alexander Leushin.
The rally was organized by Spravedlivost (Justice), formed by auto traders whose business was wiped out by a hike in import tariffs. Kaliningrad, an exclave cut off from Russia by EU-member Baltic states, was a hub for car imports from Europe. (For a FACTBOX on Kaliningrad, double click on [ID:nLDE6101N5])
Two days before the protest, nervous local authorities caved in to the group’s demand to cancel a hike in transport tax. But those concerns had already been overtaken by a groundswell of anger at the regional government and the rally went ahead.
“The authorities are simply suffocating me,” said Oleg, 38, who has seen soaring prices for petrol, electricity and gas and the slow dismantlement of tax incentives eat into his business — a five-man company that makes packaging for bread.
Saturday’s rally was the second he has attended in his life.
“This is affecting my family too much for me to do anything else,” said Oleg, who was afraid to give his last name.
Like many in Kaliningrad, Oleg blames the region’s woes on Governor Georgy Boos, a Putin-appointed outsider critics claim is more loyal to rich friends in Moscow than locals.
“It feels like we are under occupation,” said Sergei, 55, another protester.
A resolution passed at the rally by a show of hands demanded Boos’ dismissal and the return of direct elections for governors, scrapped by Putin in 2005 as he consolidated power.
The resolution stopped short of demanding the resignation of Putin, now prime minister, or his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, but rally organiser Konstantin Doroshok said if nothing was done, anger would quickly focus on Moscow.
“If the federal authorities want to block us, it will become completely clear that the course of Prime Minister Putin is not in line with the interests of the citizens,” said Doroshok.
Regional parliament speaker Sergei Bulychev, from Putin’s dominant United Russia party, cast the protest as a provocation financed by outsiders in a bid to destabilise the region.
“Protests never just happen by themselves,” Bulychev said.
Neither Putin nor Medvedev has commented on the protest, but the Kremlin’s reaction betrayed concern. The president’s envoy arrived Monday to meet with Boos, and on Tuesday a senior United Russia official announced it was sending a group to the region to probe the causes of the protest.
On Thursday leading business daily Vedomosti reported that a Kremlin adviser responsible for the Kaliningrad region, Oleg Matveychev, had resigned under pressure.
But for its next move, the Kremlin faces tough choices.
Analysts say dismissing the governor is unpalatable as it would set a precedent and could encourage similar protests in other regions. And a law-enforcement crackdown would risk adding to tensions in a region where alienation from Moscow runs deep.
An opposition rally in the Russian capital on Tuesday that included one of the same speakers was banned and broken up by hundreds of police, with most of the organizers detained.
But activists in Kaliningrad said that disaffection among local bureaucrats and police would have made it difficult for the authorities to block the protest.
“We are car owners too,” said, Levan, a 25-year-old riot policeman who attended the rally. “Most of us support the protest, but of course we’re not allowed say so.” (Editing by Louise Ireland)