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Kaliningradans rally against appointed governor, 2009-2010
In 2009, Kaliningrad Oblast was a Russian exclave bordering Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea with no land connection to the rest of Russia. Because of this separation and its proximity to members of the European Union, it prospered more than the rest of Russia. The Russian government held it up as proof that Russia can provide the same quality of life as the European Union. It also enjoyed a more open political environment, as it had independent sources of media and small protests occurred frequently without government pushback. However, one political party, United Russia, dominated Kaliningrad politics, as it did in the rest of Russia. Additionally, the governor of Kaliningrad was appointed by the central Russian government and was not elected.
In mid-2009, the government of Kaliningrad increased the tax on cars imported from the European Union. This, combined with rising utility costs and the lingering effects of the most recent recession (2007-2009), put increased pressure on many local businesses that imported cars at a low price and then sold them duty-free to customers in the rest of Russia. On 24 October, 500 people gathered in the main square of Kaliningrad to protest the tax and general rising costs of life in Kaliningrad.
Opposition activists took note of the growing feelings of injustice and formed a coalition that broadened the scope of demands in the hope of appealing to a greater number of citizens. The coalition involved several groups from across the political spectrum; despite having opposing political views, they all felt marginalized by the ruling party, United Russia. Activists picked Konstanin Doroshok, a car-importer, who was not a member of any party, to lead and organize future protests. This new coalition demanded that the government rescind the import tax. They also demanded the direct election of governors and the resignation of Gregory Boos, the Kremlin-appointed governor. Protesters felt that Boos was not working in their best interest and worked solely for the benefit of United Russia. He became emblematic of the political monopoly United Russia held and the tight grip Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had on the entire country.
The coalition organized another rally that took place on 12 December and attracted around 5,000 protesters. Six weeks later, they organized another major rally that 12,000 people attended. At this point, demonstrators directed much of their anger toward Gregory Boos, who they blamed for the decline in prosperity. The coalition also coordinated with opposition groups in cities across Russia, who staged their own protests. As the biggest protest in Russia in over ten years, it garnered attention from many national and international news sources. United Russia responded by claiming that the opposition groups had tricked protesters into attending. The national party also blamed Gregory Boos for the outrage directed toward United Russia.
The coalition began to plan a massive protest for 20 March, called the “Day of Wrath,” in cities across the country. They hoped 50,000 people would attend the event in Kaliningrad, a city of just over 400,000.
After the Day of Wrath was announced, Gregory Boos called on the opposition leaders to meet with him to discuss what changes needed to be made in Kaliningrad. He met with some of them on 26 February, and he agreed to rescind the contentious import tax and lower utility costs. Because they still wanted him to resign, they continued to plan for the 20 March protest. Although the government had previously worked with the coalition to make the protests peaceful and safe, they now went to great lengths to convince or force citizens not to attend by scheduling several United Russia events in the area, threatening students with expulsion if they attended, and threatening violence.
Several days after the meeting, Konstanin Doroshok, face of the opposition coalition, announced that he would not participate in the 20 March protest for fear of people getting hurt. Several other opposition leaders claimed that government officials had either personally threatened or bought off Doroshok. His abrupt departure left the coalition with a void in both leadership and credibility.
On 20 March, 3,000 protesters gathered in Kaliningrad, despite government threats and turmoil within the opposition. Many carried tangerines or wore surgical masks, both of which had become symbols of repression in Kaliningrad. Because of the threat of police violence and the newly disorganized coalition, activists chose not to protest for several months.
A final rally occurred on 22 August in the main square of Kaliningrad. Three thousand protesters called for Putin’s resignation and direct elections, as Boos’ term was about to end. However, Dimitri Medvedev, President of Russia at the time, appointed Nikolai Tsukenov to the position of governor. Since March, enthusiasm for the protests had died down, and since Boos left office, the coalition disbanded.