The Kaliningrad Buzz

A scene from the January protest.

In the last week or so, an unusual number of American media outlets have hosted, tweeted, retweeted, and otherwise regurgitated the ramblings and ruminations of Russia’s liberal elite. Boris Nemtsov scored an interview with Time Magazine, Kasparov graced the pages of Radio Free Europe, Nemtsov swung by Washington for a mixer with the Republican foreign policy top brass, and then popped up again for an event at the Carnegie Endowment.

Others have already scrutinized the details of these “scoops,” but what’s the big picture? Into what exciting narrative will the DC expert squad arrange the latest interviews explosion?

The first resort of the Washington analyst, unfailingly, is to agree with whatever the liberals are saying. (Not unusually, these people are friends and advisers to the opposition — or sometimes they’re members themselves.) In the case of this current news cycle, the talking point is the opinion that Kaliningrad was a bellwether of greater civil unrest to come. The opposition (sometimes this includes СР and КПРФ and sometimes it does not) is at last mobilizing around the common aim of ousting Putin and returning to a more participatory democracy (for example, restoring the direct election of governors).

It doesn’t take a veteran of the Russia-watching scene to recognize that this formula conforms to a familiar pattern, wherein Washington analysts uncritically accept the forecasts of actors way out on the political fringe. The result is no surprise: DC has predicted for nearly seven years now (ever since the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky) a paralyzing, ruinous downfall of the Putin “regime.”

So what’s actually happening in Kaliningrad, suddenly the epicenter of Russia’s Putin discontent? What we’re seeing in the press today is the residual buzz from the January 30th demonstrations, which attracted about ten thousand people. (Some, like Ilya Yashin, claim that there were 12,000 people.) Another demonstration occurred a couple of weeks ago in Cherniakhovsk, bringing out between one and five thousand people. And scheduled for March 20th is the next round.

All the buzz you read in the media about this upcoming rally (which is unlikely to attract as many people as the January event, if the Communists and company honor their pledges to avoid cooperating with “political rascals” like Solidarnost’) — amounts to a lot of free PR for career activists like Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov. Simple, albeit uncommon, protests against unpopular tax policies attracted these out-of-towners, who — exploiting the chaotic nature of street demonstrations — arranged photo ops to make it seem as though (a) they were the people’s spokesmen, and (b) there was a coherent “people” to speak of at all (instead of an irritated tea-party mass of unhappy taxpayers and pensioners).

Vladimir Kara-Murza superbly demonstrates, once again unintentionally, the liberal-democrat delusion, which goes something like this: the Kremlin controls every aspect of politics, and it uses that influence to sustain an obsessive campaign against the likes of Yabloko and Solidarnost’. Hence, a unanimous Duma vote to recognize Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence is proof that Vladimir Putin doesn’t tolerate dissent (not the natural consequence of the 2008 conflict’s rally-around-the-flag effect on Russian politics). Furthermore, decisions by КПРФ and СР to avoid cooperation with Solidarnost’ at rallies is evidence that the Kremlin orchestrated the directive:

The phrasing left the impression that the statements were drafted in the same Kremlin office: “prevent the participation… of charlatans and political crooks” (Communist Party), “alliance with the ‘young reformers’ of the 1990s… is impossible” (Patriots of Russia), “we do not share the ideology and methods of… [Solidarity leader] Boris Nemtsov” (Fair Russia). While unlikely to sabotage nationwide protests (regional party activists often act independently from the Moscow leadership), this desperate act shows the true nature of Russia’s pro-Kremlin “opposition”.

Kara-Murza doesn’t even consider the possibility that “political crooks” and “the 1990s stigma” might actually be the associations most Russians have with the liberals.

So what in the end is the government doing about Kaliningrad? Well, no surprise: its first effort was to try to relocate the March rally to the edge of town. While it doesn’t look like the city will actually apply police force to keep the demonstrators out of the center, there is obvious reluctance to “just let things play out.”

Boris Gryzlov, speaker of the Duma, is in the region now, negotiating with the regional parliament. He’s declared that he’s “ready to become the lobbyist for Kaliningrad” in Moscow, no doubt raising a few smiles. There seems to be a plan in the works to share certain administrative powers between the federal Duma and the regional parliament, in order to allow greater flexibility in the setting of tariffs and the maintenance of housing services.

In short, the government is doing its best to both marginalize and appease the different characters involved. Call me crazy, but it’s almost as if we were talking about a normal interaction between the state and society!


  1. But Russia has never been, is not, and never will be a “normal” society! It has always been a sultantistic dictatorship (Stephen Blank), a totalitarian police state (Richard Pipes), or morally comparable to Mordor (Edward Lucas), and this latest episode is yet further proof that the locus of evil in the world remains firmly planted in Red Square. Any suggestions that the Kremlin is predictable or (gasp!) rational in its behavior are proof positive you are on the take from the FSB.

    On this last theme, a few “liberal” trolls showed up on INOSMI and accused me of being in league with Putin. Why? Because I made fun of Boris Nemtstov. Why does that make me a Kremlin flunky? Because anyone who mocks the dear leader of “democracy” in Russia is, clearly, operating on instructions from the very top of the vertical of power.

  2. What is really funny is the opposition petition Coalson is pushing over at RFE “Everything has totally collapsed, it’s all Putin’s fault, and nothing will get better until we run him outta town!”

    This is what passes for analysis for Putin’s opponents, and, more worrysome, the DC punditocracy.

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