When a slate of local candidates in the Kaliningrad enclave at the western tip of Russia unexpectedly beat the politicians fielded by the powerful, pro-Kremlin United Russia party two months ago, it seemed like a minor political earthquake. Not a single member from Vladimir Putin's party made it onto the 15-seat council no ruled by a coalition of local businessmen, communists and "patriots."
That's not the sort of thing that usually happens in Mr. Putin's "managed democracy." So it prompted comment in Moscow media, and to a lesser extent in the West's, about whether the upset was "an indication of just how soft support for [Putin and his] party" has become.
But upon investigation on the ground here, what emerges is not a sign of United Russia's potential vulnerability, but rather the mistake of thinking of it as a "political party" at all. And at the end of the day, it shows that however much Russia's power flows from Putin, democracy is a factor in Russian politics – and voters do sometimes have the last word.
"What happened in Baltiysk was more the exception than the rule, and you'd be mistaken to view it through your Western prism of party politics," says Solomon Ginzberg, an opposition member of Kaliningrad's regional legislature. "It wasn't an ideological competition, as it would be between two different parties in your country, but between rival economic interests who are actually part of the same political establishment. Still, it created a very interesting precedent, one worth studying."
Baltiysk, an impoverished town of about 30,000 perched at the end of a sandy peninsula jutting into the Baltic Sea, was a completely closed naval base until the cold war's end 25 years ago. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did funding for municipal services from the Russian navy. Unlike military towns in the West, the ill-paid sailors of the Russian Baltic Fleet, which is still based here, don't have much cash to spend in local businesses.
Practically the only way to make a bit of money around here is to engage in harvesting and marketing the semiprecious lumps of fossilized tree sap, known as amber, that wash up on the Baltic seashore or can be dug out from local bogs. The Kaliningrad region is the source of 90 percent of the world's extractable amber. Local people traditionally have known how to find it, craft it into the region's trademark jewelry and handicrafts and smuggle it out to market – all the while keeping the state mostly in the dark about their activities.
It's hard to read the deeper currents that may be running through the popular mood here. But experts say that since the USSR's collapse, one local business clique has organized the amber trade in Baltiysk, and in the process provided jobs and income in a place that is largely populated by impoverished military pensioners and offers few other economic opportunities.
"The local amber operators live in the Baltiysk area, they know the place and the people, and in a variety of ways they take the local population's interests and needs into account. They ran the district council, but nobody claims they were doing a bad job of it," says Vladimir Abramov, an independent political expert. "They were mostly members of United Russia and big supporters of Putin."
That came under threat when Kaliningrad's governor – a Putin appointee – decided to crush the little amber operators and place the industry back under state control.
"The governor wanted to get rid of 'criminal' groupings and place municipal governments under firm control," says Mr. Abramov. "He called emergency local elections in Baltiysk, and he pressured the local United Russia apparatus to ensure that the incumbent members of Baltiysk's council were all excluded from the party list. Then he introduced his own people to be the party's official candidates."
After being rejected in the United Russia primaries, the former district council members tried to register as independent candidates. Despite a protracted legal battle, they were eventually allowed to run. And when the voting took place on May 24, the independents swept the board and not a single official candidate of United Russia won.
"The population rallied to their side and supported them in the election campaign, even though it meant defying United Russia," says Abramov. "In short, voters chose to side with the devil they knew."
Losing but still winning
A victory for democracy? Yes. But a blow to United Russia, or even Putin's anointed governor? Apparently not so much, experts say.
"After the voting happened, most of the newly elected deputies immediately rejoined the party of power. And United Russia accepted the result and took them back in," says Mikhail Berendeyev, a political scientist at Baltic Federal University in Kaliningrad.
"The principal conclusion [of this episode] is that United Russia is not a party in the sense that the entire world understands that word. It's more like an elite club, to which those in power must belong. If you're strong enough, and you can win, they will co-opt you – as long as you're not an ideological threat," says Sergei Ribin, a local activist with the grassroots election monitoring group Golos. "You can win an honest election and get that result accepted."
On the other hand, what is possible in a small town like Baltiysk may not hold useful lessons for anyone trying to contest power at a higher level. But Ribin, a lawyer who's been monitoring elections for many years, says he is nevertheless optimistic.
"The system is what it is. But we see in the example of Baltiysk, and some other little straws in the wind, that it's possible to bend it and maybe re-shape it a bit. I have hopes that such incremental changes are gradually, step-by-step, moving us in a more democratic direction."