Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Trouble in Paradise

By Jiri Kominek

For those readers who have a fresh, firsthand recollection of public protest in Russia, the formula is quite simple. A few hundred anti-government protesters turn up to peacefully vent their dissatisfaction with the government, and the Kremlin responds by sending in an exponentially superior number of OMON interior ministry anti-riot troopers in what has become, for them, a routine training exercise in crowd control. The result: the crowd is controlled, almost always with brute force, and OMON gets some exercise.

Apparently something interfered with the formula throughout the course of the last weekend in January in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, when a few hundred people, angry over road tolls and public transit tariff increases, turned into a 10,000-12,000-strong mass protest against the Putin/Medvedev-led Korporatsiya.

Not only was the OMON caught off-guard, so apparently was Vladimir Vladimirovich.

While some Russia specialists interpret this as the beginning of the end for Putin’s Russia and expect this contemporary version of the time of troubles to spread across the country, similar incidents in Vladivostok last year that were also inspired by the government-imposed increase of import tariffs on used Asian cars failed to achieve a new Russian revolution.

“The Kaliningrad incident mirrors last year’s protests in Vladivostok since it indicates that the Kremlin’s centralized power is not recognized in outlying regions whose local economies are tied more closely to that of their foreign neighbors”, said Ondrej Soukup, a Prague-based journalist and Russia analyst.

This appears to carry some weight given statements made by protest leaders in Kaliningrad who stated, “We live in Europe and not Turkmenistan, we were promised living standards closer to that of the EU and so far the opposite seems to be taking place”.

Some analysts see a link between the protests and recent disclosures made by Rosstat, Russia’s Federal Statistical Authority which disclosed on February 2 that the country’s GDP shrank by 7.9 percent in 2009, marking a 15-year record, surpassing the 5.3 percent economic contraction of 1998 that almost resulted in the Yeltsin-era reformers being lynched in the streets.

“One can draw very few similarities between the events of 1998 and 2009-2010 where living standards have improved dramatically. Today people are far more troubled by the overbearing state bureaucracy and the omnipresent corruption that accompanies this rather than being concerned about having enough to eat”, said Soukup.

For many Russians, this ever-present state bureaucracy and banana republic-like corruption is symbolized in the country by all levels of law enforcement.

Yet even elements within Russia’s police community appear to be growing sick and tired of how their superiors expect them to remain at the pointy end of a very dirty system and face the wrath of the crowds.

Could this mark the beginnings of trouble in paradise?

Jiri Kominek is a Prague-based journalist specializing in economic, political and security issues throughout Central and Eastern Europe. He may be reached at

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