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The Kaliningrad Syndrome

Participants of the rally in Kaliningrad on August 21 demanding the return of direct gubernatorial elections.
Participants of the rally in Kaliningrad on August 21 demanding the return of direct gubernatorial elections.
The specter of Kaliningrad is haunting the Kremlin.

When an estimated 10,000 antigovernment protestors took to the streets in Russia's Western exclave early this year, it deeply spooked the ruling elite who worried it could be a harbinger for the country as a whole.

The demonstrations, which caught the authorities completely off guard, erupted over a planned hike in the transportation tax. They quickly escalated into calls for the resignation of Governor Georgy Boos and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

This week, they got half their wish.

Boos, whose term expires in September, was not re-nominated. Instead, President Dmitry Medvedev has picked Nikolai Tsukanov, the head of United Russia's Kaliningrad branch, to run the region.

Analysts have called the nomination a savvy move for several reasons. Most importantly, Tsukanov is local. A key subtext of Kaliningraders complaints about Boos was that he was a carpetbagger imposed on the region by Moscow.

But as Evgeny Minchenko, director of the International Institute of Political Expertise, tells, he is also an establishment figure who was close to Boos -- assuring a relatively smooth transition:

We can assume that the choice of Tsukanov was a compromise. On the one hand, he is a local candidate. On the other hand, he is a candidate who is acceptable to the incumbent. His choice can be viewed as some kind of compensation for Boos.

Boos' removal has calmed the situation in Kaliningrad somewhat. But nevertheless, days after his ouster was announced, approximately 1,000 protesters took to the streets to demand a return to the direst election of governors.

Writing in "The Moscow Times," Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center argues that the problem in Kaliningrad isn't really Boos, but a general dissatisfaction with Russia's current political arrangements:

Boos is far from being the country’s worst governor. To be fair, he made commendable changes after the January demonstrations in which more than 10,000 protesters voiced their complaints about transportation taxes, high unemployment and low living standards.
Boos is a young, ambitious and successful businessman with strong experience in public politics and federal government. The protests against Boos were largely aimed against the larger government system that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin constructed rather than against Boos personally. This is similar to what happened when former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev replaced unpopular party secretaries in the late 1980s. Gorbachev didn’t understand that the problem was with the entire Communist system, and not those particular individuals.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Petrov elaborated on the roots and consequences of the growing discontent:

People are tired of promises from the authorities that everything will be ok and that the economy is beginning to grow. They are tired of the authorities in general. In this atmosphere, anything can spark a protest. It could be higher taxes. It could be ecological issues like in Khimki forest. It could be something else. The social and political mood is much more charged than it was earlier...

They [the authorities] are already adjusting their activities. The situation with the governor of Kalinigrad Oblast speaks to the success and large-scale protests that happened at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The authorities are nervous and are doing what they can to calm people down and escape mass protests and confrontations... The problem is that there is no other normal channel. like political parties, for the authorities can hear the people without protests and social upheaval.

A key test for the authorities will come in local elections in October. An editorial in today's issue of "Nezavisimaya gazeta" argues that given the current mood, it will be difficult for the ruling United Russia to maintain the kind of dominance it has come to expect without fixing the election:

Since United Russia leader, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, says that the [economic] crisis is over, the ruling party will have to prove it in October. Unfortunately, few voters seem to agree with this assumption and the ruling party will need to resort to the administrative resource again. And what about President Dmitry Medvedev' calls for the maximum integrity of campaigns and elections? United Russia will have to somehow negotiate this narrow channel between Scylla and Charybdis. And negotiating it will be difficult.

And if they fail to negotiate this narrow channel, there could be more Kaliningrads on the horizon.

-- 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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