Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Huge Rally Catches Russian Government Off Guard

Over the past few months Russian civil rights groups have been staging a series of rallies on the 31st of every month that has 31 days. The day is meant to be symbolic – the 31st article of the Russian constitution guarantees Russians the right to publicly protest, though in practice even small, peaceful protests usually are quickly broken up by the police. In past months these 31st day protests have been small in nature, drawing just a few hundred rights activists and government critics, like former Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. But a rally in Russia’s westernmost city, Kaliningrad, shocked authorities in the Kremlin when between 6,000 and 12,000 people turned out to protest not just a reduction in civil rights but also cuts to social programs, hikes on taxes on imported automobiles and public transit fees, and to demand the resignation of their regional governor Grigory Boos.

The Soviet Union won Kaliningrad as part of a reparations package from Germany following World War II. Even though it is just south of Lithuania, Kaliningrad was officially attached to Russia, something that was of little practical importance, at least until 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved and Lithuania and Russia were no longer part of the same country. Since then Kaliningrad has been an exclave of Russia, separated from the main body of the country, yet still strategically important since it is home to Russia’s Baltic Sea naval fleet.

But Kaliningrad residents say that being surrounded by EU member-states Lithuania and Poland make them keenly aware that their standard of living is far below that of their EU neighbors. And, they add, oft-made promises by officials in Moscow for programs to build up Kaliningrad’s economy have never been fulfilled, which helped to spark the massive rally on Sunday. Solomon Ginzburg, an opposition politician in Kaliningrad told The Guardian that the Sunday protests were even larger than street rallies in 1991 to oppose an attempted coup by KGB hardliners against Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform-minded government.

Meanwhile, Kaliningrad’s governor Grigory Boos was summoned back to Moscow following the protest. According to the New York Times, officials in the Kremlin are unhappy with Boos for not using the OMON (Russian police special units) to break up the protest before it could swell to an embarrassing 10,000 people. Last year OMON forces were flown to the Far East port city of Vladivostok to break up protests there over new taxes on imported cars (importing cars from Japan was a thriving cottage industry in Vladivostok). OMON units were used in Moscow on Sunday to disburse their 31st protests, arresting more than 100 people, including Nemtsov. But the OMON forces are struggling with a scandal brewing within their ranks.

On Monday an interview was published with a group of OMON officers titled “The Slaves of OMON”, where the officers made claims including: that they had quotas for the number of people they needed to detain per day, that their superiors often forced them to work up to 20 hours a day for as much as two weeks straight, and that they have been “rented out” to work as hired muscle to intimidate business owners and to protect prostitution rings. Officials with OMON hit back hard saying that several of the officers interviewed in the article had been fired in November and that one never even worked for OMON at all. The magazine that published the report “The New Times”, stuck by their report, and it is worth noting that the OMON charges come less than three months after the highly-publicized police corruption charges leveled via YouTube by former police Major Alexey Dymovsky. As with Dymovsky, the government is vowing to launch a “full investigation” of the OMON officers’ claims.

It will be interesting to see what the fall out will be both from the OMON charges and the Kaliningrad protests.
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