KALININGRAD, Russia — They gathered under rainy gray skies — men and women, young and old — demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a man long seen as untouchable in Russia’s tightly controlled political scene.
Cries of “Freedom!” and “Putin resign!” filled Kaliningrad’s dilapidated main square, as up to 5,000 people gathered to take part in a nationwide “Day of Wrath.” From Vladivostok in the far east to this, Russia’s westernmost region, dozens of protests were held today in the largest show of discontent since Putin came to power more than a decade ago.
What began as distinct protests against specific economic policies — a rise in utilities prices, an increased tax on imported cars, environmental concerns — have now been united by a growing concensus on who is to blame, said Vladimir Milov, a former energy minister under Putin and current co-leader of Solidarity, an umbrella opposition movement.
“People are clearly moving from specific economic and social demands to general political demands, from the resignation of local governors to the resignation of Putin’s government,” he said, sitting in a Kaliningrad cafe after flying in from Moscow to observe the day’s events.
“There’s a recognition that political factors, and the government, are to blame,” he said.
As yet, it’s unclear how true that is. Putin’s popularity rating remains high and many of today's protests garnered just 150 to 500 participants. In Irkutsk, where locals voted in a Communist mayor in local elections last week, dealing a heavy blow to the ruling United Russia party, just 500 people turned out (versus the 2,000 who attended a pre-election protest earlier this month).
In Kaliningrad, the population is certainly calling for political change. Today, protesters wore pins disparaging United Russia and called for the ouster of the Moscow-appointed governor, Georgy Boos. The smell of tangerines filled the air as they held aloft the fruit that has become the symbol of the unpopular leader. “It’s because he used to be fat,” said one protester (failing to mention that his face carries the distinct orange glow of a badly done fake tan).
Kaliningrad has held the largest anti-Putin protest to date, with 12,000 taking to the streets on Jan. 30.
Yet ask anyone here, and they will tell you Kaliningrad is different. Nestled between European Union members Poland and Lithuania, and separated from the Russian mainland, it is unlikely to be the launching pad for a wave of large-scale protests — all the more so since television in Russia remains largely state-controlled, and coverage of events here has been nonexistent.
“Our population is different from Russia,” said Konstantin Polyakov, a regional Duma deputy from United Russia. (Nevermind that Kaliningrad is, actually, Russia.)
“Some people finish school never having been to Russia, but have been many times to Poland, Germany, Sweden, England,” he said.
“We’re more European — more relaxed, less Eastern. And we’re more democratic.” It would be hard to find a United Russia deputy in Moscow implying the party, or the Russian leadership, was anything but democratic.
And yet the Kremlin has been visibly shaken by events in Kaliningrad. After the January protest, it dispatched a high-level delegation to the Baltic exclave and fired its Kaliningrad adviser, Oleg Matveichev.
“It really surprised us,” Polyakov said. “We didn’t think so many people would turn out.”
Today's protest was officially banned, and organizers were given the option of holding it at a stadium on the city’s outskirts. Expecting 30,000 people and fearing violence or disorder in a closed space, the lead local opposition activist, Konstantin Doroshok, canceled the meeting. Members of Solidarity, the national opposition movement, accused him of capitulating to the government and accused authorities of adopting a strategy of splitting the opposition.
Yet several thousand showed up anyway, having organized on the internet and by word of mouth.
“People are fed up,” said Viktoria, a 50-year-old protester. She, like most everyone I talked to, was unemployed. The official unemployment rate here is 9 percent, said Polyakov, but he believes it is much higher. The financial crisis shut numerous factories and the region’s main airline, while a rise in import tariffs on cars struck at the nerve of the region’s most lucrative trade by bringing European cars to Russia.
“We’re sick of our governor,” Viktoria said. “At the same time, we understand that nothing happens in our country without Putin.”
In marked contrast to Moscow — where opposition protests are regularly disrupted by baton-wielding riot police — today’s Kaliningrad protest went off peacefully. Rumors that police had been flown in from outside the region as reinforcements proved to be untrue.
Yet everyone expects United Russia — and Putin — to react somehow. So far, the government has moved to lower utilities costs and has reassured the population that jobs will be created. With the budget deficit already above 6 percent of GDP, the measures will only add to the strain.
“The leadership is scared,” said Solomon Ginzburg, an independent deputy in the regional Duma. “I’ve been saying the Kaliningrad region is an indicator — in nine months, it will be all over Russia.”