Restlessness in Russia’s Western Outpost
By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ
Published: March 25, 2010
KALININGRAD, Russia — Amid the sagging Soviet-era apartment blocks and hulking government buildings here, it can be difficult to imagine that this was once a German city graced with gingerbread-style facades and Teutonic spires.
About all that remains of the 700-year-old city once called Königsberg — which was bombed to oblivion in World War II, then taken over by the Soviet Union and renamed in 1946 after the death of a Bolshevik hero, Mikhail Kalinin — are some weathered houses and a few reconstructed cathedrals. But that does not mean residents of this island of Russian territory wedged between Poland and Lithuania do not entertain certain European expectations.
“I would like to bring Königsberg back to Europe,” Rustam Vasiliev, a local blogger and political activist, said, intentionally using the former German name of this city. “I’ve got no Kremlin in my head.”
People like Mr. Vasiliev have become a headache for the Kremlin, as some of the largest antigovernment protests in Russia in recent years have broken out here, in part because of the failure of officials to bring the region more in line with the standards of Western Europe.
The Kremlin has had similar problems in other far-flung regions, notably in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, where the economy has been drawn into the orbit of local Asian powers.
Here in Russia’s western extreme, people take pride in their European cars but complain about their city’s pocked roads. Advertisements for concerts in Warsaw and Berlin hang on the crumbling facades of long-neglected apartment buildings. When local people talk of Russia, they often seem to mean not their own country, but some foreign land to the east.
“We are located outside of Russia’s borders and within the borders of the European Union,” said Vytautas V. Lopata, a cafe owner and local independent politician. “Here, people are freer. They see how people live in Europe; they have heightened demands.”
When it comes to politics, Kaliningrad is by no means a thriving democracy. People here have nevertheless come to enjoy a level of openness not found elsewhere in Russia. There are independent television stations and real opposition politicians in the local Parliament (though their influence is minimal). Small street protests are not uncommon and are generally tolerated by the authorities.
By contrast, even the tiniest antigovernment demonstrations in Moscow are quashed by riot troops, sometimes violently. And when protests broke out in Vladivostok last year, the authorities sent those same Moscow riot troops to suppress them.
But officials both here and in Moscow were clearly caught off guard in January when as many as 10,000 people poured into a central Kaliningrad square to demand the resignation of the regional governor and other officials from Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s political party, United Russia.
Since then, the authorities have been scrambling to contain the damage lest the dissatisfaction in Kaliningrad spread to the rest of the country. They were able to head off another protest scheduled for last weekend, in part by making serious promises to opposition leaders to resolve their major complaints.
Still, it is unclear how long the tentative peace will hold, especially given that there has been no shortage of unfulfilled promises here.
Though Kaliningrad remained under Moscow’s control after the Soviet collapse, its location outside contiguous Russia seemed to hold out the promise that the formerly sealed military zone would be opened to the prosperity of the West.
But membership in the European club has always been elusive, to the dismay of many here. The region remained relatively poor, even as its neighbors — until recently, at least — prospered. Like all Russians, Kaliningraders must submit to the lengthy process of applying for visas to visit cities a few hours’ drive away.
“Here we are like fish in an aquarium,” said Konstantin Doroshok, one of the leaders of the January protests. “And the water has not been changed in a while, and we are going extinct.”
Things did not always feel this constricted, Mr. Doroshok, 40, said. Just a few years ago, he and many others were doing good business importing European cars into Kaliningrad to resell to Russians farther east, one of many similar professions that thrived here because import tariffs from European countries into Kaliningrad were cheaper than those for the rest of Russia.
A year ago, however, the Kremlin sharply increased customs duties on imported cars, which Mr. Doroshok said effectively killed his business. He was also slapped with what he said were fabricated charges of failing to pay customs duties and fined about $600,000.
“One fine day it seems that one of the oligarchs calculated how much he failed to earn as a result of the fact that citizens of Russia were importing automobiles independently,” he said, “and decided to try to push us out of this business.”
It was then that Mr. Doroshok and others angry over Kremlin interference in their way of life decided to push back.
A series of demonstrations culminating in the large January protests compelled Kaliningrad’s Kremlin-appointed governor, Georgy V. Boos, for the first time to hold serious talks with opposition leaders, including Mr. Doroshok. Though protest leaders called off a planned demonstration last week, several hundred people gathered in central Kaliningrad, shouting “Down with Boos!”
“There was an underestimation by us and me personally of the need to devote more time to communicating with people,” Mr. Boos said of the protests at a news conference here last week.
To deflect some of the ill will directed at the governing authorities here, some local United Russia leaders have even floated the idea of relinquishing some of the party’s near monopoly on power — something that might be considered blasphemous elsewhere in the country.
“That would lower some of the political strain and allow for more democratic governance,” said Konstantin I. Poliakov, the deputy head of United Russia’s faction in the regional Parliament.
Many, like Mr. Lopata, the cafe owner, say that it makes little difference to the people of Kaliningrad who their leaders are as long as their region remains cut off from their real neighbors and under Moscow’s thumb.
“We live within the European Union,” Mr. Lopata said. “But it turns out that we live behind a fence.”
A version of this article appeared in print on March 26, 2010, on page A10 of the New York edition.