Russia: Proposed NATO Hub in Ulyanovsk Sparks Protests

There are no ‘NATO bases’ in Russia” [ru], tweeted Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitriy Rogozin on March 15, a couple of days after news agencies reported on plans for a NATO transport hub based in Russia [ru]. The perpetual Communist Party (KPRF) leader Gennady Ziuganov was not convinced, tweeting a few days later: “The NATO base in Ulyanovsk – presents from Putin to the USA for recognizing [Russia's presidential] elections” [ru], and further calling it a “betrayal.” This quasi-exchange exemplifies the hubbub over a transport hub that will be based on an airfield in Ulyanovsk [en], a medium sized city on the Volga River, and the birthplace of Vladimir Lenin. On one side is a scandalized Russian Internet community, along with opposition politicians milking the scandal; on the other are government officials trying to downplay the incident.

Russian politician Dmitry Rogozin giving a press conference in Moscow, 2/22/2011, photo by A.SAVIN. CC BY-SA 3.0; Wikimedia Commons.

Rogozin was reacting to a wave of online indignation that has since spread to the streets, leading to hunger strikes and anti-NATO marches in Ulyanovsk and Moscow. He has since continued to tweet emphatically about the situation, blaming the spreading resentment on “provocateurs.” After all, when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made the initial announcement, he made it clear that the hub supporting NATO’s Afghanistan mission would be used for the transport of only “non-lethal” equipment and for refueling. The Foreign Ministry was later careful to dispel worries [ru] that the new “base” will be anything but a transport hub, or that NATO personnel would be stationed there.

Unfortunately, Russians’ mistrust of both NATO and their own government means that no agents provocateurs are necessary to incite discontent. In fact, the “move along, nothing to see here” line serves only to encourage accusations of conspiracy. The analysis in Russian blogs ranges from the potential use of Ulyanovsk to transport Afghani drugs to Russia [ru] to flippant calls [ru] for an analogous Russian base in the USA or Europe. According to many bloggers, Putin is either betraying vital national interests [ru] in order to soften his now-completed presidential campaign's militant rhetoric, or there is some quid-pro-quo [ru] between European missile defense and the Ulyanovsk base. And, of course, there is the sacrilege of tying the anti-Communist alliance to the birth place of the founder of Russian Communism. (Photo.)

KPRF has in fact been at the forefront of opposition to the hub in Ulyanovsk. On March 19 [ru], the communists organized the first anti-NATO meeting. Although it was small, the subsequent March 26 [ru] “No to NATO” protest, also organized by the local KPRF branch, drew around 300 people. The April 7 march [ru] was even more numerous, drawing approximately one thousand protestors. However, members of the fringe political party “Will of the People” claim [ru] that they, along with other nationalist groups, made up most of the crowd. “Will of the People” advertised the march on its blog [ru], as well as on the newly created “Ulyanovsk without NATO” [ru]. (Photo.)

Anti-NATO protests in Moscow, 4/5/2010, photo by ILYA VARLAMOV, copyright © Demotix.

Communists and nationalists seem to be the only major opponents of the base. So far, Eduard Limonov’s “Other Russia” [en] movement has been the only liberal opposition group to register protest with its “The Foreign Ministry is a Den of Traitors” [ru] action on April 5 in Moscow. Even Aleksei Navalny, a darling of both nationalists and liberals, has not commented on the issue. Nashi and other pro-Kremlin activists, the usual suspects staging anti-NATO protests, are also conspicuously silent. Perhaps they were satisfied by ministerial assurances.

The communists were not satisfied, however, launching a hunger strike on April 8 [ru] at the Ulyanovsk airport slated for the base. Although their encampment has since been dismantled by the police [ru], they plan to continue the strike at least until April 21 [ru]. This hunger strike has been drawing much less attention than the one in Astrakhan [en], although it looks like KPRF has been using search engine optimization [ru] to increase public awareness. Incidentally, some local bloggers believe that the strike is driven by the desire of Nairi Chatinian, a factory owner and a local KPRF committee member, to move into bigger politics [ru] or perhaps take over the leadership [ru] of the local party machine.

On March 26, the NATO General Secretary tried to alleviate some the above fears [ru] by stating that NATO has no plans for a “base” in Russia. Vladimir Putin reiterated this when he addressed the Duma on April 11, saying [en]:

I assure you that nothing unusual, not corresponding to our national interests, is happening there. On the contrary, everything that is being done in this sphere fully corresponds to the national interests of our people.

Indeed, if ever there is a NATO base established in Russia, Vladimir Putin is probably the only political leader who could get away with it. Until then, the facts on the ground don’t really matter. Without mutual trust, the Kremlin and members of the opposition will simply continue to talk past each other.

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