This weekend (Saturday 30 January) between 7,000 and 12,000 people held a rally in the Russian exclave Kaliningrad. The demonstration initially targeted local tax hikes but ended in calls for more democracy and for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to resign.
Largest demonstration since decade
The weekend protests in the Kalinigrad exclave, a piece of Russian territory sandwiched between Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea, was the largest anti-government demonstration in the country since 2001.
The rally was initially planned as protest against transport tax hikes but grew into a large-scale political demonstration, in which mainly all of Russia’s political were involved, except the ruling United Russia party. The demonstrators also expressed dissatisfaction with the skyrocketing living expenses and the growing unemployment rate. "No incidents were reported," a police spokesman said.
The regional legislature approved a tax hike in late November 2009 and on 12 December protests followed. On 28 January, 2010, the regional Duma adopted new amendments into the law on transport tax, in line with which the tax will be kept at the current level throughout 2010 but will be raised in 2011. "Kaliningrad residents today showed that the authorities have to reckon with them. The partial giving up of transport tax hikes proves this," said Maxim Doroshok, the initiator of the rally and leader of the local Solidarity Movement. The protesters also demanded the resignation of regional governor Georgy Boos would resign.
“Protests inspired by EU neighbours”
Mr Doroshok said that his region's proximity to EU countries is producing an appetite for political change. "We don't get our knowledge about the world here from state television, like people in provincial Russia, but from what we see when we visit our neighbours," he told reporters. "We see that in neighbouring Poland, where they brought in reforms, where there is democracy, it's cheaper, people earn more, civic bodies function better. Are we any worse? Our enclave is the most European in the whole [Russian] federation because we know Europe and we know how to fight for our rights." Mr Doroshok highlighted the similarities between himself and Lech Walesa, a shipyard worker from Gdansk in Poland who in the 1980s led the Solidarnost trade union in opposition against his country's Communist regime.
The province, which is home to around 1 million people and a large military base, has been touted by Moscow as a model for potential EU-Russia integration, but suffers from poor living standards and high levels of tuberculosis and HIV.
Mr Putin in 2005 abolished elections for the post of Kaliningrad governor and installed a loyalist - lighting components millionaire Boos - to rule as governor, amid fears that the region was drifting away from central control.
Another blow to freedom of speech
Small-scale anti-government protests also took place across Russia over the weekend, with gaggles of demonstrators at Moscow metro stations, in St Petersburg and in Vladivostock also calling for reforms.
The main rally in Moscow –which is a rally held by the opposition each month on the 31st- saw police detain 100 out of the 300 or so protestors, with senior opposition leader, Boris Nemstov, among those placed under arrest. The U.S. State Department has said the arrest of the 100 protesters, including prominent rights campaigners and opposition figures, was a blow against freedom of speech and assembly in Russia.
Updated 2 February, 11:49
Sources: Ria Novosti; EU Observer; RFE/RL; Volkskrant (Dutch)