KALININGRAD -- Konstantin Doroshok has the confident, affable manner of a self-made businessman. Wearing blue jeans and a parka emblazoned with a Porsche label, he sits in a cramped office in Kaliningrad's regional parliament. In recent months, Doroshok and other members of the marginalized opposition in this western Russian exclave have frequently met in each others' offices to air their grievances and strategize.
Describing his entry into opposition politics, the onetime car importer says he grew frustrated with having to abide by strict rules that didn't seem to apply to the region's Kremlin-connected big shots. Soon, he was joining street protesters angry about how the pro-Kremlin United Russia party enjoys free rein over the region. "Not only the top-down system of control by the authorities, which is the United Russia party's main goal," he says, "but also the deeply entrenched corruption the vertical power system supports."
Doroshok was soon leading protests and was recently picked to head a coalition of opposition groups. In late January, he organized the country's biggest protest in a decade. It drew 12,000 people, who braved freezing temperatures to denounce the regional government in a forlorn central square near a derelict communist-era building called the House of Soviets. The protest seriously rattled the Kremlin, which sent a stream of top officials to Kaliningrad to find out how to deal with what it saw as a significant new threat to its authority.
Now Kaliningrad is bracing for a mass protest against corruption and authoritarianism on March 20. Opposition groups had hoped the event would provide an even bigger challenge to the Kremlin. But this time, Doroshok has surprised his allies by pulling out, in what his critics say is proof that government repression is working to stifle any criticism. WATCH: Kaliningrad is bracing for a mass protest on March 20 by opposition members who say the Russian exclave suffers from corruption and Kremlin-imposed repression: Bubbling Over
Doroshok says the January protest represented a bubbling-over after years of anger. Kremlin critics around the country hoped it was the dawning of a new era for Russia's beleaguered opposition. So many were dismayed when Doroshok pulled out of the March 20 demonstration -- a day when as many as 50 coordinated protests are planned throughout Russia -- saying he feared government-paid thugs would initiate fights that would prompt police to beat and even kill his supporters.
Instead of attending the protest, Doroshok says, he will take part in a televised debate with the region's governor, Georgy Boos -- the biggest target of Kaliningraders' anger -- over a list of the protesters' demands. His decision has prompted a fierce debate about how best to bring about change in Vladimir Putin's Russia.
Across town, the somewhat run-down office of a beauty salon serves as headquarters for an opposition party called Patriots of Russia. Its leader, Mikhail Chesalin, points to a sagging sofa where he says Doroshok was sitting when he agreed to lead the region's opposition coalition. He says Doroshok was able to draw thousands because he's not connected to any political party.
But the youthful-looking Chesalin -- who's also head of a dockworkers' union -- believes that Doroshok succumbed to psychological pressure by the authorities to compromise his stance on basic human rights. "The governor basically handed us an ultimatum when we met with him," he says. "We could either conduct a constructive dialogue and address concrete issues, or go out and protest. To me, the argument clearly illustrated that the governor's only reason for meeting with us was to convince the opposition to stop its demonstrations."
Chesalin says the police have called Doroshok in for hours of questioning, and that the beauty salon and other opposition offices have also been harassed by the tax police and other officials ahead of the March 20 protest.
Chesalin, who's led regular small protests for years, says Doroshok's decision not to take part in the weekend rally has dealt a serious blow to the growing number of Kaliningraders who've begun to publicly air their views. Surrounded By The EU
Locals like Chesalin suggest it's no accident that the biggest demonstration in recent memory took place in Kaliningrad, echoing a frequently heard sentiment that this isn't just any Russian city. Kaliningrad was once the picturesque German city of Koenigsburg, which was almost completely destroyed by Allied bombers in World War II. Annexed by the Soviet Union, the city was renamed and rebuilt with brutalist concrete hulks into a major naval port. The surviving Germans were imprisoned or deported.
Forty-five years later, after the Soviet collapse, Kaliningraders found themselves isolated, surrounded by Poland and Lithuania, now members of the European Union. In the 1990s, the Russian exclave faced soaring crime and economic collapse until Moscow granted it tax advantages to encourage foreign investment. The economy soon began outpacing most other Russian regions, until the global financial crisis brought everything to a screeching halt.
Kaliningraders rallied en masse on January 30.
Across the street from a newly restored Gothic cathedral -- the city's major landmark, and one of the few remaining German buildings in Kaliningrad -- local resident Pavel Skatkov says most of the anger here is directed toward the governor. A Kremlin loyalist, Georgy Boos was appointed almost five years ago by then-President Putin.
Skatkov, a small-business owner, says instead of helping people cope with the effects of the crisis, Boos has gouged Kaliningraders for money. "Prices for utilities have skyrocketed and property taxes have doubled," he says. "I don’t think the local administration's policies are aimed at doing anything for the people."
Boos cut benefits for pensioners and veterans and ended tax advantages for one of Kaliningrad's most lucrative businesses: importing used cars from Europe. At the same time, critics say, new government-sanctioned construction projects violated laws and enriched his allies.
Opposition leader Lyudmila Zelinskaya, head of the local branch of the Moscow-based Solidarity opposition group, says that unlike most of Russia, Kaliningrad's proximity to EU countries has enabled its residents to compare what's going on here to practices in nearby democracies. "Our cultural ties to Europe took off especially at the end of the 1990s," she says. "And civil society there is so strong, it talks to the government on almost equal terms."Local Politics
If all politics is local, Kaliningrad is a good example. Although some protesters in January called for Putin's sacking, opposition leaders say they're interested mainly in changing regional politics.
There are some signs they're succeeding. The impact of the earlier protests captured international attention and forced Governor Boos, whose term expires in September, to break more than four years of stonewalling by meeting with the opposition.
The January demonstration was especially worrying for the Kremlin because more than the usual gathering of die-hard Kremlin critics, it included many small-business owners and middle-class residents. United Russia regional lawmaker Konstantin Polyakov says the authorities heard the protesters' message and are taking steps to put things right. "We may have stuck our noses in the air a little too much in the past and said, 'We'll do everything ourselves,'" he says. "That wasn't exactly right. We should have paid a little more attention to the opposition, and also shared the blame."
Back in the regional legislature, Doroshok says he understands why people have criticized his decision to pull out of the March 20 protests. But he says his goal of pressing Boos to enact real change by signing a list of protesters' demands is more important than going onto the streets simply to call for his resignation. "We have to try to achieve the protest's aims," he says. "And that's to create levers of control over the authorities. Of course, the coalition's most important work in general is to fight for citizens' rights and freedom. But we also have to set up the means for breaking the monopoly on power."
Still, some opposition leaders are calling on protesters to attend an unsanctioned protest near the House of Soviets on March 20 during Doroshok's televised meeting with the governor. It's not clear how many will attend, nor how big turnout will be at the other rallies scattered throughout Russia.
There are rumors of planeloads of riot police arriving in Kaliningrad, and many believe the Kremlin will crack down against their movement soon, if not this weekend.
But others who say they'll attend this weekend's protest say January's demonstration lifted a spell that has long hung over their city. After years of depression, they say, challenging the Kremlin has enabled them to feel like people again.