Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Do the Kaliningrad Protests Represent the Rise of a ‘New Kind’ of Opposition Movement in Russia?

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 23 – The 10,000-strong demonstration in Kaliningrad at the end of January by virtue of those who took part in it, their motivations, their organizing techniques, and the reaction of the regional authorities may represent the birth of “a Russian opposition of a new kind,” according to a Moscow journalist.
In an article in the current issue of “Russky reporter,” Anna Rudnitskaya draws that conclusion on the basis of her conversations with those who were involved in the January 30th meeting and predicts that protests elsewhere across the Russian Federation are increasingly likely to follow the same pattern (www.rusrep.ru/2010/06/protest/).
According to the Moscow journalist, many of those who organized and took part in the Kaliningrad protest were “representatives of small business,” people she describes as “the least politicized” element in society but who have been driven to protest by the specific actions of the powers that be that affect their businesses and daily lives.
And to the extent such people become more politically active, they will begin to form in the regions “real opposition forces of a new type,” even “while in Moscow [the powers that be] are occupying themselves with artificial construction of parties” and empty declarations of programs and goals.
The people she met with in Kaliningrad, Rudnitskaya says, “still do not have either a political program or an ideology. [But] on the other hand, instead of general democratic slogans, they have a list of concrete demands to the powers that be, demands that are understandable to every economically active citizen.”
She said that she had reached that conclusion on the basis of conversations with the organizers of the January protest, “people who are certain that massive but specifically focused meetings are the only way to fulfill the call of the president [Dmitry Medvedev] to the modernization of Russia.”
The people she met with in a Kaliningrad restaurant ranged in age from 23 to 55, included programmers, website designers, entrepreneurs, and drivers. “There were even members of [the ruling party] United Russia.” Many were meeting for the first time, having been in contact up to then only via the Internet.
Konstantin Doroshok, the leader of the local “Justice” movement and “one of the main organizers” of the protest, said that the basis of their actions is that they focus on specifically local concerns. Indeed, he said, he had rejected calls from three other regions for joint action lest it dilute the local focus.
Another organizer, Oleg Padinker, who owns an IT firm, said that he and his fellow organizers are “trying to introduce the thought to the coworkers that they are masters of their own life and that no one except for [themselves] will change it for the better,” a conclusion that he had reached on the basis of his own experiences.
He added that he and his colleagues agree with Medvedev and Putin on only one thing: we want to live in a great country and we do not want Russia to fall apart.”
Another participant in the discussion with Rudnitskaya was Vlad Gurin, 27, who said that he “never thought about politics and in general never participated in anything societal at all. But there, at the meeting, pensioners were standing, and [he] felt bad on their account.” Moreover, he said, he reflected that “he “did not want to find himself after a few years in the same situation.”
Doroshok, who Rudnitskaya suggests is looked upon by the others as the leader, said he had been driven to protest by a combination of official highhandedness and his experiences in Germany, experiences that he wanted to reproduce in his own homeland rather than leave it and go abroad.
He said he had voted for Putin in 2000, but since that time, he indicated that he has not taken part in elections. The reason for that, he said, is that he has “a collection of Putin’s messages to the Federal Assembly.” Having read them all, Doroshok said, he noted that Putin “not once in eight years promised anything.”
Instead, he continued, the former president all the time had said “’we must’” and “’we can’ … But never ‘I promise.’” In Kaliningrad, Doroshok continued, the governor had failed in some big things but most people are angry simply because “in the last few years, they have begun to live worse” than they did before.
One of the most neuralgic issues in Kaliningrad is medical care. Activists of the Patriots of Russia Party have been organizing small protests against the closure of hospitals and especially birthing facilities. Mikhail Chesalin, a former dockworker who is one of them, also took part in organizing the January 30th meeting.
But he and the others, Doroshok suggests, are moving to link up with others who are upset with this or that action of the regional government. “We already have begun to look around and to understand that the injustice of the powers that be concerns not only us. It concerns everyone. And this means, it is necessary to unite.”
Although most of those involved in preparing for the January meeting had taken part in protests before, Rudnitskaya suggests that their organization of that demonstration represented a breakthrough. They disseminated several thousand leaflets, they printed an appeal in a local free newspaper, and they launched a website, www.newkaliningrad.ru.
Had they been able to make an announcement on television, there would have been not 10,000 but 50,000 present, the organizers told the Moscow journalist. That is all the more so because local officials were helpful: the city’s mayor had the square cleaned of snow and the militia behaved well.
Moreover, and undoubtedly not unimportantly, the organizers had friends within the regional legislature. Konstantin Polyakov, the vice speaker of that group and a member of United Russia, spoke out against proposals by the governor to organize a counter demonstration. Such an action, he said, would have been “a stupidity.”
Polyakov added that there were many “normal people” in United Russia and that they felt the same way. “The main thing,” he continued, “is that no bloody provocateurs make use of the awakening public consciousness” in the region. Otherwise “Russia could simply lose [the non-contiguous] Kaliningrad oblast.”
“If anyone sent Moscow or Petersburg OMON units to put down disorders here,” he said, “I do not think that anyone after this would want to discuss anything else with the Russian powers that be,” an indication that any mishandling of this “new kind” of opposition by the powers that be could have the most fateful consequences.

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