Holding mandarin oranges above their heads and unperturbed by the driving rain, they came out onto Kaliningrad’s Central Square yesterday in a mass protest against local governor Georgy Boos and their prime minister Vladimir Putin. The days leading up to the protest, one of the most significant in recent Russian history, were a fascinating case study both in how opposition protest movements are organised, and how the Russian government responds to them.
Kaliningrad, a small wedge of Russia tucked between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea and cut off from the rest of the vast Russian mainland, has always been an unusual place. As Monocle found out when we visited last year, even the local politicians admit that the residents see themselves as “more European” than other Russians. Schoolchildren are more likely to visit Poland or Germany than mainland Russia and the expected standards of living are much higher.
A 30 January protest in the city drew over 10,000 people, making it one of the largest protests anywhere in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Complaints over higher taxes and living costs soon turned political, with the protesters calling for the resignation of Boos, and even Putin. For Russia, such a big group of people openly challenging the authorities was unheard of. Terrified that the next protest, planned for yesterday, would be even bigger, regional and federal political structures went into overdrive.
First, in a widely used tactic, the authorities announced that the protest would not be allowed on the city’s central square, as a hastily arranged “food fair” was due to take place there. High-ranking officials flew in from Moscow to consult with the governor, who soon announced something unprecedented – he would meet with the leader of the protesters and give in to many of their economic demands.
For the exact time of the planned meeting, a marathon television Q&A session with the governor was arranged, where he promised to answer all residents’ questions. Meanwhile, many opposition leaders suddenly found themselves receiving threats; some of those who own small businesses say that the tax police began to take a remarkable interest in their accounts in recent days.
“It was a typical carrot and stick approach from the authorities,” says Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister and now one of the opposition leaders, who had flown into Kaliningrad from Moscow to attend the meeting. But despite the presence of top Moscow oppositionists, the meeting was largely spontaneous. Throughout the week, an online group with over 1,000 members on a Russian social networking site discussed plans for the protest.”This evening we’ll work out the final version of the plan of action. It would be great to read your ideas on this,” wrote one member of the group on Friday night.
News spread by the internet and word of mouth, and despite the governor’s telethon, the driving rain and the ban on protesting, up to 5,000 people made it to the square, wearing surgical masks to denote the lack of democracy in Russia and holding mandarins in the air in a jibe at Governor Boos, who is rather rotund and looks like he spends a lot of time in a solarium.
Such a large mass of people chanting anti-government slogans would be unthinkable in Moscow or other Russian cities, for now at least. But the ease with which Kaliningrad protesters overcame the government’s best “administrative measures” to avoid a mass demonstration is likely to unsettle the authorities deeply.
“They’ve turned our country into a dictatorship and we are not going to stay silent,” said one middle aged woman at the protest, holding her mandarin in the air and wearing a “Stop Boos” badge on her lapels. “Look at all the people who have come out here today. We’ll keep coming until they listen to us.”