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Kaliningrad On The Brink

Thousands rally in Kaliningrad
Thousands rally in Kaliningrad
It began as a protest against a new transportation tax. It mushroomed into a massive street demonstration calling for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's resignation.

And the Kremlin clearly didn't see it coming.

After an estimated 10,000 from across the political spectrum took to the streets in Kaliningrad this weekend, Russia's isolated western exclave is suddenly on everybody's mind.

On Monday, President Dmitry Medvedev dispatched his envoy, Ilya Klebanov, to the region. Today, Putin sent his own delegation from the ruling United Russia party to do some damage control.

There is talk that the regional governor, Georgi Boos, could be on the way out. There have also been reports that United Russia is in the process of organizing a pro-government counter demonstration this weekend.

This could clearly get ugly.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service today, political analyst Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center called the unexpected mass uprising "extremely unusual," adding that against the backdrop of small social protests going on elsewhere in Russia, "suddenly a powerful wave appeared." Petrov added that the authorities are desperate to avoid "the possibility of creating a precedent, that could lead to a repetition of something like the 'velvet revolutions' of the early 90's, when crowds took to the streets and demanded the replacement of their rulers."

It would be extremely surprising if Boos, whose term expires in the summer, manages to keep his job. But it is unclear whether sacking the beleaguered governor would be enough to pacify this crowd.

Moreover, Moscow's perennial clan politics are also part of the mix. Boos is a close ally of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, himself badly weakened by his frayed relations with the Kremlin and an ugly standoff with the residents of the suburb of Rechnik (over the authorities' plans to evict them from their homes so the land can be used by developers).

Much of Boos' Kaliningrad administration, moreover, is heavily staffed by Luzhkov loyalists brought in from Moscow, which has become a source of some resentment in the region.

The crisis in Kaliningrad is taking place amidst the worst economic contraction Russia has experienced in 15 years. According to figures released this week, the Russian economy contracted 7.9 percent in 2009, its worst performance since 1994.

Just for a bit of perspective, that is much even worse than the 5.3 percent contraction of 1998, the year of the financial crisis that nearly caused an economic meltdown and discredited the market reformers advising then President Boris Yeltsin.

According to the official Russian statistics office, Rosstat, the construction industry shrank 16.4 percent, the manufacturing sector contracted 13.9 percent, and the hotel and restaurant business dipped by 15.4 percent.

And if that all wasn't enough to cause sleepless nights in the Kremlin, rumblings of dissent are becoming increasingly audible among Russia's police.

An elite battalion of OMON riot police in Moscow has appealed to President Dmitry Medvedev, complaining of abuse among commanders and or being ordered to arrest opposition figures at anti-government demonstrations.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov described a conversation he had with an OMON officer shortly before being detained at a demonstration in Moscow this weekend:

Those who were standing around us, a colonel called Viktor Aleksandrovich, acted completely pleasantly and agreed that the authorities are doing everything so that in the end there will be a revolution. They are acting stupidly. The remaining police acted like animals -- they grabbed us, spun us around, shouted, screamed, pushed, and pressed up tight against Lyudmila Mikhailovna [Alekseyeva, the 82-year-old head of the Moscow Helsinki Group].

If the Russian authorities thought they were out of the woods because oil is hovering around $80 a barrel again, they had best think again.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

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


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