Crackdown on Russia’s Opposition Reveals Systemic Problems in Kaliningrad Region
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 200
In early October, Russia’s state-run TV channel NTV (its current owner is Gazprom Media) broadcast a sequel of its investigation into the Russian opposition. The film known as “The Anatomy of Protest 2.0” contained a recorded conversation between one of Putin’s main critics, Sergei Udaltsov, and a person identified as Givi Targamadze. He is the former chairman of the defense and security committee in the Georgian Parliament and previously served as deputy on behalf of Mikhail Saakashvili’s United National Movement. According to NTV journalists, Udaltsov and Targamadze discussed the forceful takeover of state power in Russia’s westernmost region of Kaliningrad, using such levers as Russian nationalists and even Chechen fighters to set up deliberate provocations against the local government.
While NTV’s loyalty to the Kremlin is no secret to anyone (its journalists were infamously involved in the harassment of US Ambassador Michael McFaul following his arrival to Moscow in January 2012), Russia’s law enforcement authorities reacted with much seriousness. Prosecutor General Viktor Chaika ordered a full-blown investigation into alleged attempts at subversive activities by a group of opposition leaders (Gazeta.ru, October 5; Rossiyskaya Gazeta, October 6, 8).
Although it still remains to be verified whether such a conversation actually took place between Udaltsov and Targamadze, the reference to Kaliningrad seems anything but surprising. Established after its separation from the defeated Germany in 1945, the Kaliningrad region used to be one third of Eastern Prussia (the remaining two thirds were ceded to Poland). The city of Kaliningrad was founded as Konigsberg in 1255 and served as the administrative heart of Eastern Prussia from 1773 until the end of World War II.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the region found itself in isolation from the rest of Russia. This situation became particularly complicated after the 2004 accession of Poland and Lithuania to the European Union. In January 2005, when both countries joined the Schengen Agreement, the relative freedom of movement previously enjoyed by those living in the Kaliningrad region was additionally restricted. Although Russia suggested establishing special transit corridors to allow better connections between the region and other Russian territories, the EU declined to consider such measures (Lenta.ru, September 22, 2004; Grani.ru, January 1, 2005).
Furthermore, the price of air and train tickets to and from Kaliningrad has remained extremely high. The 2009 bankruptcy of Kaliningrad’s low-cost air company KD Avia and the Russian federal government’s refusal to subsidize passenger transportation only contributed to the consolidation of this status quo (Gorodkanta.ru, September 17, 2010). Later, two ferry lines between St. Petersburg, on the one hand, and Kaliningrad and Baltiysk, on the other, were definitively cancelled in August 2010. The inability of Russia’s government to ensure harmonious transport relations between Kaliningrad and other Russian cities has been aggravated by the lack of progress in EU-Russian talks about new visa regulations. Latvia, Estonia, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands continue to be firmly opposed to the prospect of liberalization of the existing visa regime (Newsbalt.ru, October 18).
The economic situation in the Kaliningrad region also remains a factor of concern for both local authorities and the federal center. In the second half of the 2000s, the region’s gross regional product (GRP) per capita was 35 percent below the national average and twice as low as in the neighboring territories of Poland and the Baltic states (Newsland, October 18). Even though the Kaliningrad region is a special economic zone, whereby its companies enjoy customs and tax preferences and can import duty-free products from the EU, the share of a “shadow economy” in its GRP is estimated at 90 percent—this indicator hovers around 30 percent in the rest of Russia (Kommersant.ru, January 18, 2006). As a result of the 2008–2009 financial turmoil, Kaliningrad’s industrial output decreased by 10.5 percent, further weakening one of its flagship industries, fisheries. In 2011, the volume of investment into this sector was equal to only 25 percent of total inflows 20 years earlier.
Together with the degradation of the region’s productive capacities and the spread of shadow businesses, the prestige of the Russian army, which has traditionally enjoyed a beneficial position due to its nearby Baltic fleet, is further undermined in Kaliningrad by rampant corruption and poor discipline. In early October 2012, the number of young people willing to dodge obligatory military service was equal to the total demand in new recruits announced by Russia’s armed forces for the Kaliningrad region (Rosbalt.ru, October 3). The state of disorder in the Russian army had earlier been highlighted by the country’s chief military prosecutor Sergei Fridinsky, according to whom the frequency of common criminal offences exceeded military delinquency threefold, with a 53-percent increase in murders, a twofold increase in bribery, and 27 percent more cases of drug-trafficking in 2012 alone (RIA Novosti, August 8).
Finally, Kaliningrad is faced with serious secessionist trends. In 1993, local separatists established the Baltic Republican Party claiming a larger autonomy for the region within the Russian Federation and later even its full independence. Although this organization was closed down by a court ruling in 2003, it reemerged as an association called “Respublika”, only to vindicate Kaliningrad’s special status of associated member within both Russia and the EU (www.enet.ru). In 2003, the vice-speaker of the regional Duma, Sergei Kozlov, suggested granting this territory a “special foreign status” and was surprisingly supported by the Russian president’s representative for the Northwestern Federal District, Ilya Klebanov (Izvestia.ru, February 18, 2005).
In October and December 2009, as well as January 2010, Kaliningrad was rocked by powerful street protests against the central government’s new transport tax regulations, forcing the local governor, Georgiy Boos, out of office (Svobodanews.ru, August 18, 2010). Moreover, separatist aspirations are also nurtured by ethnic Germans who fled Konigsberg after its takeover by Soviet troops. The German-based non-profit organization representing the interests of German expellees, Bund der Vertriebenen, founded in 1957, currently remains the most outspoken supporter of Eastern Prussia’s reconstitution as a historic region.
All these factors make the Kaliningrad region a particularly vulnerable Russian territory, haunted by profound economic difficulties, an entrenched distrust toward Moscow and vigorous separatist tendencies. By cracking down on the opposition leaders, the Kremlin may also aim to decapitate the region’s own opposition to the federal government, lest this fragment of Eastern Prussia drift further away in the direction of Europe and the West.