Miles from the Kremlin, protesters aim fruit and fury at Putin

Shaun Walker witnesses demonstrations in the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad

Monday 22 March 2010 01:00 GMT

Waving mandarins above their heads, and wearing surgical masks to denote the lack of free speech in Russia, they descended on Kaliningrad's central square in droves. They came despite the local government's offer of negotiations, and the driving rain sweeping in from the Baltic Sea.

For an hour on Saturday afternoon, some 5,000 protesters called loudly for the resignations of the local governor Georgy Boos and the Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and bemoaned falling standards of living and the lack of democracy in the country.

The mandarins distributed among the crowd were a derogatory reference to Mr Boos, the Kremlin-appointed regional governor, apparently because he looks like he may have spent rather too long on a sunbed and, protesters claim, is "as fat and round as a mandarin".

Across Russia, the so-called Day of Wrath, with protests organised in 50 cities from the Baltic to the Pacific, was mostly a disappointment for the opposition. Just a few hundred people turned out in Vladivostok and Irkutsk, places where organisers had expected thousands. In Moscow there were just a few dozen protesters, many of whom were swiftly arrested.

But Kaliningrad, Russia's exclave on the Baltic, is fast becoming the vanguard of the Russian opposition movement. Here, something unusual seemed to be happening. Most people said they were there because they wanted systematic political change. When cries went up of "Freedom!" and "Putin. Resign!", hundreds joined in. Protesters, male and female and ranging in age from teenagers to pensioners, said they were sick of living in the present political climate. "Putin treats us like livestock," said Yury, 34. "He is like a tsar who has dispatched his evil princes to the regions. We don't want Boos and we don't want Putin."

Kaliningrad, which until 1945 was a German city named Königsberg, is separated from the rest of Russia, wedged between Poland and Lithuania. Many young people have never been to Moscow or St Petersburg, but most have been to Poland and Germany.

"People here are more uninhibited, more democratic, than in the rest of Russia," said Konstantin Polyakov, the deputy head of the Kaliningrad branch of United Russia, the Putin-backed party that dominates Russian politics.

The was frantic manoeuvring in the government in the days and weeks before Saturday's protest. A protest in the city in January drew more than 10,000 people and took authorities by surprise. The Kremlin official responsible for Kaliningrad was sacked, and high-level Moscow officials flew in for talks. In an unprecedented step, Mr Boos invited the opposition for talks.

"Some of the people who flew in from Moscow couldn't believe we had a protest of 10,000 people and didn't disperse them with police," said Mr Polyakov. "But that is not our way here. There are real problems – higher taxes, visa issues for travel to Europe, and transport tariffs – and we want to solve them through dialogue." A mixture of carrot and stick was used to derail the protest. The authorities hastily organised a farmers' market for the square on Saturday, and prominent opposition figures reported the tax police taking a sudden interest in their accounts.

Konstantin Doroshok, the most respected local opposition leader, entered lengthy talks with Mr Boos, which resulted in him cancelling the protest and calling instead for the opposition to negotiate. By Friday evening, tension in the city was palpable. Outside the regional administration, where Mr Doroshok was meeting with Mr Boos, other opposition figures muttered darkly that he had been bribed to keep quiet. Some said he could not cope with the pressure of being responsible for potential bloodshed. "I've known him for many years, but I think he's taken the wrong road," said one of Mr Doroshok's friends and opposition colleagues. "I don't know what they offered him, power, money or what. It's a shame."

At the Hotel Moskva, senior opposition figures arrived from Moscow. Dressed in a sharp white suit was Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister, now part of Solidarity, an opposition group. "We are beginning to see the recognition by the general public in the regions that it's Putin who is to blame for the decline in real incomes," said Mr Milov.

With little mention of Saturday's protest on state television, disgruntled locals swapped information and rumours online. Through word of mouth and online organisation, thousands of people arrived at the square and overran the market, waving their mandarins, and wearing badges calling for the resignation of Mr Boos.

The opposition has little to offer except criticism of the authorities, and liberal politics have negligible support. Few serious political analysts believe Russia is anywhere close to a serious co-ordinated threat to the Putin regime. But the scale of grassroots discontent in Kaliningrad will give the Kremlin cause for concern.

"There is a turning point in the attitudes of the active political class," said Mr Milov. "The protest in January attracted 3 per cent of the city's population. Revolution happens because of the minority who want change."

Kaliningrad: Russia's Baltic annexe

*Nestled between Poland to the south and Lithuania to the north east, the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad was part of Germany until it was annexed by the USSR in 1945. At the end of the Second World War, the German population either fled or was expelled. Kaliningrad, on the Baltic coast, is hundreds of miles from the Russian border, but the two remain closely linked. The majority of the region's 940,000 residents are ethnic Russians, and it is the centre of the Russian motor, consumer electronics and soybean processing industries. The region was a closed military zone throughout the Soviet period, and remains a key military base, hosting the Russian Baltic Fleet at Baltiysk, Russia's only European ice-free port.

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