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Spotlight on Russia
Vladimir Kara-Murza

The last decade has brought endless setbacks for Russia’s pro-democracy forces. One after another, the regime claimed new targets in its drive to solidify power: media freedom, electoral competition, judicial independence, regional self-government. It is difficult to name what, if any, victories the opposition has scored against the rising authoritarian tide. Indeed, it seems there have been none – until this week.

On Monday Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party announced its shortlist of candidates for governor of Russia’s western-most region of Kaliningrad (one of the names on this list will be chosen by President Dmitri Medvedev). The list itself does not arouse much interest, except for one thing: it does not include Georgy Boos, the region’s current Putin-appointed United Russia governor.

Just a few months ago Mr. Boos seemed confident of his career prospects. “I plan and want to seek a second term,” he declared publicly during a television broadcast. “Of course we will propose Boos’s candidacy,” promised United Russia chairman and Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov. There didn’t appear to be any obstacles to Mr. Boos’s reappointment: Kaliningrad’s principal media outlets, like elsewhere in Russia, are controlled by the government; the local legislature, which must ratify the president’s choice, is packed with United Russia yes-men. There was just one problem, which until recently would hardly have surfaced on the Kremlin’s radar: public opposition.

“The figures of support for the current governor are not such that we can propose his candidacy,” mumbled the tongue-tied Mr. Gryzlov during his meeting with the president. “Unfortunately, the level of support for our friend and colleague Boos … is insufficient for him to continue his work,” echoed United Russia’s general secretary, Vyacheslav Volodin. Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was more forthright, calling the Kremlin’s retreat over Kaliningrad “the first serious victory for the opposition.”

It is somewhat ironic that a regime so paranoid of “color revolutions” would leave its people no other avenues for expressing discontent than to go out to the streets. This is precisely what the citizens of Kaliningrad did earlier this year on January 30 – more than 12,000 people, a number unseen at pro-democracy demonstrations since the 1990s, rallied in the city’s downtown to demand the resignation of Governor Boos and Prime Minister Putin and the return of gubernatorial elections abolished by the Kremlin in 2004. Having raised transport taxes for the general population while registering his own private jet on the Cayman Islands, Governor Boos may have been a particular irritant to the residents of the region he was appointed to rule. But the demand for a return of gubernatorial elections is a common theme at opposition rallies across the country, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok: polls consistently show a clear majority of Russians resenting Mr. Putin’s decision to take away their right to elect governors in favor of appointments from Moscow. According to the latest poll by the Levada Center, Russians favor gubernatorial elections by 59-20 percent. President Medvedev’s recent declaration that direct elections will not return for “a hundred years” did little to increase support for the regime. And the problem of government abuse and corruption is by no means restricted to Kaliningrad.

Mr. Boos’s term does not expire until the end of September, so his party colleagues had plenty of time to announce their decision. The timing seemed to have been determined by another planned opposition rally in Kaliningrad on August 21, expected once again to draw thousands. If the Kremlin’s plan was to forestall this mobilization, it backfired: far from being appeased by the removal of Mr. Boos, democratic activists were heartened by the regime’s retreat. The Kaliningrad branch of Solidarity, the pro-democracy movement led by Mr. Nemtsov, has confirmed that the August 21 rally will go ahead as planned, stressing that the opposition’s demand is for the return of elections, not a reshuffling of Kremlin appointees.

History shows that when autocratic regimes begin to openly succumb to public pressure, their days in power are numbered. Kaliningrad is only the beginning.

Source: worldaffairsjournal.org

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