"Against United Russia!" Photo by Ilya Denbrov.
Russia's westernmost city staged the biggest anti-Moscow protests in a decade on Sunday. But while similar demonstrations across the rest of the country saw the swift deployment of riot police, in the distant Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad Oblast, the authorities were left helpless in the face of an estimated 10,000 protestors.
The police say there were 6,000 protestors; the protestors themselves say there were 12,000. Either way, the demonstration was huge; thought to be the biggest in Russia in the past ten years and almost six times bigger than the Vladivostok uprising in December 2008. Organised by local rights group Spravedlivost ("Justice", a supposedly non-political entity), and attended by supporters of Solidarity, the Communist and the Liberal Democrat parties, participants held up banners denouncing both local governor Georgy Boos and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for increasing utility prices at a time of economic crisis. They also booed the refusal of the government to reinstate the direct popular election of regional governors, abolished by Putin in 2004. The 83 governors are currently chosen directly by the president.
What was particularly unusual about the mass protest in Kaliningrad, is that unlike most public demonstrations in Russia, this one was left untouched by riot police. The explanation presented by many is quite simple - protests are usually dispersed by riot police squads from other regions, but it's not easy to bring external forces into Kaliningrad, due to the fact that it's geographically separated from the rest of the country, with Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus in-between. The region is very close-knit, so getting the local police to arrest what could be their relatives or close friends is a rather complicated task.
“We live in the middle of Europe, where they do care about civil rights, freedom, beliefs”
Mikhailis, from Kaliningrad, took part in the protest. He prefers to remain anonymous.
From students to seniors, what united the crowds was their refusal to agree with the current situation in the region. The governor, sent to us from Moscow, probably thinks of himself as of a tsar. He keeps raising taxes and making other misdeeds, not taking into account what people think. He cares only about his own interests and what the higher authorities tell him. Kaliningrad has the highest unemployment rate in the country, people are practically broke because of the crisis, but the millionaire governor raises taxes several fold! Utility prices are on the rise, goods prices are on the rise, salaries are dropping - but the authorities are trying to get their hands even deeper into our pockets!
Why Kaliningrad has become the first and the only city that has said ‘Enough'? We're cut off from the rest of Russia, which, as is clear now, just spits on us. Putin delivered us a governor that spits on us too. But we live in the middle of Europe, where they do care about civil rights, freedom, beliefs."
Mikhailis' photos (posted on his blog):
From left to right: the political flags of Yabloko (democrats), the Communist Party and the Russian Patriots party.
"What the crisis couldn't do, deputes have done".
"You've overeaten, you've stolen too much, now it's time to serve your time".
“United Russia is a bucket of filth”
People chant "Partiya YedRo - Pomoinoye Vedro" ("United Russia is a bucket of filth") and "Putin is responsible for Boos" (Georgy Boos is the Kaliningrad governor who was appointed by Putin in 2005). Video posted on YouTube Jan. 31 by "kit1052".
“Our people are starting to wake up; they’re not afraid to speak out anymore”
Ilya Denbrov is an IT specialist and photographer who took part in the protest.
I don't think anybody was expecting so many people. People came to express discontent with their lives, with the situation they were in because of the local authorities. And this discontent was able to bring together very different people with different political views. I'm very happy that our people are starting to wake up, to act and that they are not afraid to speak out anymore.
Of course, there were some arguable or even negative moments. I believe that many people would sign under the words of one of the organisers on YouTube [talking about what he says are lies perpetrated by the Russian press]:
Posted on YouTube by "shuricinc" Jan. 31 2010.
- The first lie is that the participants were paid to go out - they were not, if people were paid to go there would probably have been many more than 12 thousand. People came because they are fed up.
- The second lie is that the meeting was organised by the opposition parties - it was not, it was organised by a non-political organisation called "Justice". Parties just helped - all of them except United Russia. But we are not affiliated with any party - we haven't found a party for ourselves - yet.
- The third lie - it was a waste of time and nothing will come of it. All these lies are a sure sign that the meeting was noticed.
- The fourth lie - the police. They tried to set us and the police against each other. There were young policemen standing there. It's not there fault that they were sent. We worked together to prevent disorder. Somebody wants us to be divided - no way. It's not Moscow, not Vladivostok and not Pikalevo. Gdansk, Poland is just 150 kilometres from us. That's where the Solidarnosc movement that overthrew the Polish regime was born.
- The final lie is that we're extremist and revolutionaries. No, we don't need a revolution. We just want to live with dignity in our city - the city belongs to us.
Ilya's photos (posted on his blog):
"Bring back governors' elections"
"Stop increasing the tariffs. We're against the government's antisocial policies and United Russia. It's Putin who's responsible"
"Georgy [Boos] - we're ashamed that you're a biker [the slogan is being held up by bikers]/ United Russia has united against Russian citizens."