By Greg Shtraks
One hundred and five years and one week after the peaceful marchers led by Orthodox priest Father Gaston were fired upon by Tsarist troops, another mass protest, this time in Kaliningrad, threatened to undermine the ruling regime of Russia. “Bloody Sunday”, as the massacre on January 22, 1905 was called, was precipitated by despicable economic conditions, a lethargic regime unable to deal with a rapidly changing world, and a distant war sapping Russia’s resources. The direct cause of the fiasco, however, was over-eager troops who were unsure of how to react to a 300,000 person demonstration. It should be noted that, unlike Nicholas Romanov, Vladimir Putin knows very well how to deal with protesters. Last January, when riots erupted in Vladivostok over tariffs on used Japanese cars (which constitute a major source of business in the Far East city), Putin had his best riot police flown in from Moscow to quell the uprising. Incidentally, this year’s protests in Kaliningrad were also caused by rioters unhappy over newly imposed tariffs on used cars (this time from Western Europe). It might be wiser for Putin to allow embattled Volga-based car company AvTOGAZ to go bankrupt (and then deal with the ensuing unrest in the middle of Russia) than to constantly have to find ways to assuage angry used-car salesmen on the Federation’s peripheries.
Either way, this time, Putin decided not to send in the riot police. There may be a number of reasons behind his decision. First, the economic situation one year ago—terrible as it may have been—is far more preferable to the critical situation that Russia is in today. Support for the regime has withered and a show of force in Kaliningrad might have caused protests to pop up throughout the many destitute cities of Russia’s rust belt. More likely, Putin was simply unprepared for the scale and the organization of the Kaliningrad protests and was caught off guard.
The administration’s approach to dealing with the public brouhaha that erupted after the Kaliningrad debacle would have made Stanley Motts and Conrad Brean proud. Motts and Brean, fictional heroes of the 1998 film “Wag the Dog”, devised a fake war in Albania in order to distract the American public from an embarrassing sex scandal that was bruising the President’s popularity at home.
The Russian version is equally clever. On February 1st, speaker of the Federation Council Sergei Mironov publicly criticized Putin’s 2010 budget proposal and some of the other “anti-crisis” measures that the Kremlin has recently undertaken. It’s entirely possible that Mironov’s criticism was spoken from the heart. But it’s unlikely. Mironov has been a loyal stooge of the Kremlin since his “election” in 2001 to the Federal Council as a representative from St. Petersburg. Putin, who himself hails from St. Pete, needed a loyal person as Russia’s “Third Man”, and Mironov rarely disappointed him. In 2004, for instance, Mironov engaged in the strangest presidential campaign in history. He ostensibly ran against Putin while constantly declaring his support for Putin’s candidacy. It seems that the Kremlin found it useful to have a loyal opposition in the race. Later that year, in the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy, Mironov was instrumental in pushing through a law that gave the Kremlin the power to appoint all provincial governors. I was unable to find anything mildly resembling criticism of Putin in the 433 entries in Mironov’s blog (although there are some fantastic pictures from his trip to North Korea).
I highly doubt that Mironov made this statement without a slight nudge from the Kremlin. The wails for his resignation from members of the United Russia Party (Edinorossi), however, were certainly the work of Kremlin spin doctors. Calling Mironov a “rat” and an “ungrateful scoundrel”, the Edinorossi have called for his resignation. However, it is a well-known fact throughout Moscow that, constitutionally, Mironov cannot be forced to resign. Mironov, for his part, has adamantly refused to even discuss resignation. Still, Mironov’s gaffe has provided an excellent opportunity for Putin to take the nation’s eyes away from the situation in Kaliningrad. The entire episode is reminiscent of the public shaming of Oleg Deripaska in the industrial town of Pikalyovo last summer. Putin personally supervised Deripaska as he was forced to sign a contract putting the town’s 20,000 industrial employees back to work. It was the benevolent father Czar protecting the people from the corrupt boyars. Meanwhile, Deripaska, far from being out of favor with the regime, has been quietly able to salvage his interests. The situation with Mironov is similar. In a few weeks he will have a meeting with Putin and the two will be able to “resolve their differences”. Putin has never sacked a highly-ranked loyalist. I sincerely doubt that Sergei Mironov will be the first.