This is part 2 in an occasional series about tensions between Moscow and the West in key flashpoints along Russia's borders and in the territories of the former Soviet Union.
KALININGRAD, Russia — On March 11, 2014, days before an internationally condemned referendum in Crimea paved the way for the peninsula’s annexation by Russia, three political activists in the western Russian exclave of Kaliningrad staged a muted protest.
Above a back entrance to the regional headquarters of the FSB, the Federal Security Service, they hung a German flag.
The protest was intentionally provocative to Russian authorities — Kaliningrad is former German territory wrested away by the Soviet Union after World War II — and it was indicative of a rebellious streak in local politics.
Kaliningrad, Russia’s Baltic territory of 1 million people wedged between EU members Poland and Lithuania, is known for its capacity to initiate political change. In 2010, Muscovite Georgy Boos was forced to resign as the region’s governor after his controversial tax policies brought thousands onto the streets in a prolonged standoff that many say inspired the mass protests that subsequently erupted in Moscow. In the 2012 presidential elections, Kaliningrad was the only city besides Moscow where President Vladimir Putin failed to achieve a majority.
Nor is Kaliningrad the haven of opposition sentiment it once was. Recent surveys by private pollster KMG show overwhelming regional approval for the annexation of Crimea. According to a November 2014 poll, the percentage of Kaliningrad residents ready to participate in public actions has dropped from 30 percent in December 2011 to 13 percent.
Maxim Mikhaylov, an entrepreneur who runs a master’s program in business at Kaliningrad’s Immanuel Kant University, believes the emotional appeal of Crimea’s annexation has combined with a patriotic propaganda push from Moscow to deal a near-fatal blow to Kaliningrad’s traditionally vocal opposition. Before the Ukraine crisis, he took part in anti-government marches; today, with opposition “practically nonexistent,” he said he sees no point.
“I used to believe I could promote change without entering into confrontation, that those who supported Putin were prepared to listen. What happened last year strengthened the degree of conservatism across the country. And I’m not prepared to fight with my own people,” Mikhaylov said.
Some have undergone a more reactionary shift. In 2010 and 2011, Evgeny Labudin figured prominently in anti-Kremlin protests. He held one-man pickets outside government buildings and was among several activists detained at opposition marches. Four years on, now a deputy in the regional parliament, he sends aid to Ukraine’s war-torn east and volunteers to fight. Despite his pivot, he insists he remains an oppositionist at heart.
“The opposition activists think I’ve sold my soul to Putin, but it’s not true. I’m just happy Russia finally answered the calls of its compatriots abroad. If times were different, those activists would be seen as heroes. Instead they’re viewed as national traitors,” he said.
Yet Kaliningrad remains a place of contrasts, with a different history from the rest of Russia. Reduced to rubble by an Allied bombing campaign, the former German territory of Königsberg underwent a concerted Russification campaign that continued beyond the Soviet collapse. Old Lutheran churches serve as concert halls and youth clubs, while Russian Orthodox cathedrals proliferate under the Kremlin’s tightening embrace of the church.
But surrounded by EU members, it’s also a place where a quarter of residents have European visas and thousands shop in Poland and Lithuania under privileged transit agreements. Close interaction with the outside world, coupled with a sense of mental and physical detachment from Moscow, allows what locals proudly call a distinct identity to prevail. “Yes, we’re Russians, in our culture and basic values. But we’re also more European, more motivated to hold government to account,” said Mikhaylov.
Kaliningrad finds itself at the center of regional tensions. The exclave has been the setting of major Russian army drills in recent weeks, and Moscow is bolstering its military presence with the placement of nuclear missiles in the region. NATO has responded in kind, staging its largest ever exercises across the border in Poland and Lithuania, and there is the renewed possibility of American nuclear missiles returning to Europe.
Regional elections are set to take place in Kaliningrad this fall, and the incumbent Gov. Nikolay Tsukanov, while ranked very low on a Kremlin-linked think tank’s efficacy list, has no serious rivals. An April poll by KMG found that 58 percent of people in the exclave would re-elect him.
Yet current economic trends are unlikely to provide Tsukanov and his United Russia party with cause for celebration, according to Solomon Ginsburg, an oppositionist lawmaker in Kaliningrad’s parliament. Citing figures from the regional statistics office, Ginsburg said real salaries have markedly declined over the past year while prices continue to rise. Unemployment, currently at about 6 percent, is also climbing.
In May, Putin’s United Russia failed to secure a single seat in local elections in Baltiysk, Russia’s westernmost city and home to its Baltic fleet. Inspired by that result and buoyed by the outcome of the recent trial, Zhidenkov and his supporters expected a decent turnout for a rally on June 21, their first in the city center since September. In the end, only 20 people showed up.
Nevertheless, Kaliningrad’s oppositionists are adamant that the exclave’s tradition of people power is not on the wane just yet. Amid Western sanctions and a dramatic fall in oil prices, geography has proved helpless against the effects of Russia’s tanking economy, and it is that, rather than political disillusion or growing military tension, that they believe will eventually break through a wall of disinformation to provoke political change. And Kaliningrad, Ginsburg predicts, will once again spark the fuse.
“Baltiysk was a clear sign. Like a snowdrop, which appears in the thaw and eventually gives way to more beautiful flowers. People are asking questions,” he said.