Sunday, May 29, 2016


The Power Vertical

Rumblings Of Dissent In Russia's West

An anti-Kremlin rally in Kaliningrad in 2010 drew nearly 10,000 people. Is Russia's western exclave again haunting the Kremlin?
An anti-Kremlin rally in Kaliningrad in 2010 drew nearly 10,000 people. Is Russia's western exclave again haunting the Kremlin?

Kaliningrad has a history of being something of a harbinger.

Back in February 2010, a protest against a new transportation tax in the region quickly mushroomed into a massive antigovernment rally that drew 10,000 people from across the political spectrum. 

The 2010 uprising in Kaliningrad lasted for months, got increasingly creative, spooked the Kremlin, and led to the resignation of Georgy Boos as the region's governor in August of that year. 

And it proved to be the shape of things to come.

The following year, in December 2011, the largest anti-Kremlin rallies since the breakup of the Soviet Union erupted in Moscow following parliamentary elections widely seen as fraudulent. Those protests marked the most serious challenge yet to Vladimir Putin's rule and sparked a crackdown on dissent that continues to this day.

And now, Russia's western exclave is again haunting the Kremlin.

In elections to the local council in Kaliningrad Oblast's Baltisky district, the ruling United Russia party failed to secure even a single seat. Turnout was 47.7 percent, unusually high for a local council election.

The online newspaper Gazeta.ru called it "a crushing defeat" for the party of power.

Is Kaliningrad again a bellwether for Russia? It's hard to say at this point.

Local elections tend to be referendums on bread-and-butter issues. They are plebiscites on a government's performance on matters close to voters' lives like road maintenance, snow removal, and garbage collection.

The big, emotional, patriotic issues the Kremlin has been using to buttress its support for the past year matter less.

Crimea, it turns out, is a long way from Kaliningrad -- and it can't fix a pothole.

The election result, "showed a lack of confidence in the party, the governor, and by extension, the president," Solomon Ginzburg, a lawmaker in Kaliningrad's regional Duma, told Gazeta.ru.

"I can't say whether that can be extrapolated to the whole region, but the alarm bell has sounded."

And even before the Kaliningrad vote, the wake-up call appears to have sounded in Moscow as well.

Despite Vladimir Putin's stratospheric approval ratings, Kremlin strategists appear duly concerned about a rebellion below the decks as living standards fall.

The authorities, for example, are reportedly considering moving next year's State Duma elections forward from December to September.

The thinking is that turnout will be lower in the warmer weather when many voters will still be at their dachas, lessening the impact of a protest vote. This would make it easier for the authorities to manipulate the result by flooding the polls with state employees.

There has also been a wave of resignations by regional governors, most recently Vasily Bochkarev in Penza and Oleg Betin in Tambov. Previously, the governors of the Irkutsk, Omsk, Kamchatka, and Leningrad regions announced their early resignations.

All, however, are remaining in office as acting governors until elections are held.

This is a tried-and-true tactic to force early elections when incumbents believe it is advantageous to face the voters early -- in this case before the economy further deteriorates. 

So the authorities are clearly nervous. Which might also explain some of the over-the-top Putin worship we've seen lately. 

In a recent article, Stephen Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council called the phenomenon a "personality cult" that seeks to mask the regime's failures and illegitimacy behind a wall of smoke and mirrors.

"Not only must the public be rendered unable to think rationally it must be diverted from a genuine consideration of social realities by means of this deliberate infantilization and regression to quasi-magical forms of comprehension of political phenomena," Blank wrote recently in The Interpreter. 

"They are employing what Dostoyevsky’s grand inquisitor called miracle, mystery, and authority. Thus this cult attests to the illegitimacy of the regime and the authorities’ understanding of that fact and need to conceal it."

It also explains the authorities' recent dialing up of their repression of dissent.

This all does not mean that the regime is on the rocks. Far from it, in fact. They've proven quite adept at doing what they need to to to stay in control.

But last weekend's vote in Kaliningrad shows that they are far from invincible.

-- Brian Whitmore

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or