In the glitzy central square of what once was regarded as one of Europe's ugliest cities, Marina Timofeyeva was underwhelmed by the changes brought by a decade under Vladimir Putin. "It's all nice if you have money to buy something, but what if you don't?," asked the 29-year-old manager of a boutique.
She hadn't decided who to vote for in Sunday's national elections _ except that it won't be for Putin's United Russia party.
Widespread dismay with United Russia threatens to undermine the party's control of Russia and authorities are clearly nervous, including applying strong pressure on the country's only independent election-monitoring group.
The group, Golos, has complied some 5,300 complaints of election-law violations ahead of the vote. Most are linked to United Russia, the party headed by Putin, who has dominated Russian politics for a dozen years as president and prime minister.
Roughly a third of the complainants _ mostly government employees and students _ say employers and professors are pressuring them to vote for the party.
Golos' leader, Lilya Shibanova, was held at a Moscow airport for 12 hours upon her Friday return from Poland after refusing to give her laptop computer to security officers, said Golos' deputy director Grigory Melkonyants. On Friday, the group was fined the equivalent of $1,000 by a Moscow court for violating a law that prohibits publication of election opinion research for five days before a vote.
The group has come under growing pressure since last Sunday, when Putin accused Western governments of trying to influence the election. Golos is funded by grants from the United States and Europe.
United Russia has received overwhelmingly favorable coverage during the campaign, mostly from Kremlin-controlled national television. But the party is increasingly disliked, seen as representing a corrupt bureaucracy and often called "the party of crooks and thieves."
Independent pollster Levada Center said last week that United Russia will receive 53 percent of the vote, down from the 64 percent it got in the 2007 vote. This would deprive it of the two-thirds majority that has allowed it to amend the constitution.
Putin, who is expected to win a third term as president next year, and the party, had won much of their popularity on the back of Russia's economic revival, driven largely by high prices for oil and natural gas. Kaliningrad was one of the most striking beneficiaries.
The city and the region of the same name, disconnected from the rest of Russia and bordered by Lithuania, Poland and the Baltic Sea, had been a particularly dismal post-Soviet landscape of clumsy concrete buildings and shabby infrastructure. But the city's main square now features two sleek malls and dozens of boutiques whose lights cast a glow on streams of shoppers.
In a country infamous for lousy roads, a new highway connecting the city with the seacoast is a standout marvel. A nuclear plant, a casino center and a stadium for the 2018 World Cup are all under way. Putin promises even more: a new heart disease clinic, support for the local soccer team, kindergarten repairs, a major bridge through the city, and a new convalescent center for children.
Both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, apparently aware of discontent in Kaliningrad, have made pre-election trips to the region. But many local residents are unimpressed.
"I'm going to vote for the Communist Party," says Tatyana Zhuravlyova, 29, a boutique manager. United Russia "have done some things, but they did the minimum they could have. As much as they've done, they've stolen in equal numbers."
Anatoly Polyakov, a retired naval officer, said he too would vote for the Communists because of the yawning gap between society's haves and have-nots.
"United Russia is for the super-rich, but Russia has lots of poor people and its middle class is just developing. We need more social justice for the poor," he said.
Only seven parties have been allowed to field candidates for parliament this year _ down from 11 in 2007 _ while the most vocal opposition groups have been denied registration and barred from campaigning.
The Kremlin is determined to see United Russia maintain its majority in parliament. Medvedev and Putin both made final appeals for the party on Friday, warning that a parliament made up of diverse political camps would be incapable of making decisions.
Putin needs the party to do well in the parliamentary election to pave the way for his return to the presidency in a vote now three months away.
It remains unclear whether the pressure on Golos may impede its monitors from working on Sunday. The Organization for Security and Cooperation Europe has sent a monitoring mission. A preliminary report from the mission noted pointedly that "Most parties have expressed a lack of trust in the fairness of the electoral process."
The Helsinki Commission, a federal board that advises on U.S. policy about security, human rights and other issues involving Europe, criticized the court ruling to fine Golos in a statement released late Friday.
"The campaign against Golos provides additional reason for doubt about the legitimacy of the parliamentary election that will take place in Russia on Sunday and the broader state of democracy there," it said.
Associated Press writers Mansur Mirovalev and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.