Vienna, July 9 – The deplorable state of roads in the Russian Far East sparked a protest in Vladivostok on Friday during which demonstrators blocked one of the many nearly impassible highways there but also to erect a mock monument consisting of a broken wheel to this achievement of their society.
The protest, which was organized by the Molodaya gvardiya organization there, quickly drew a crowd of supporters, who chanted that Russians “need normal roads! Roads along which one can go without fearing that the wheels of one’s car will fall off” (http://www.molgvardia.ru/vladivostok/daite_nam_dori_.print).
Everyone pays taxes to build and maintain highways, the demonstrators said, and consequently, “it is time that these funds be used as intended – to repair, repair and repair again” the highways rather than allowing them to fall into their current decayed state. Some among them said simply that “it is time to give us [good] roads!”
But very quickly the demonstration turned from being about the state of the highways to focusing on who is to blame for why the roads in Russia and especially in the Russian Far East are so bad. And not surprisingly, given the anti-government sentiments of Molodaya gvardiya, many pointed the finger of blame at the bureaucrats.
These officials “should be in jail,” some of the demonstrators insisted. And to get there, they should be driven there along the bumpy and pothole filled roads they have allowed to form. “Then, corruption will become less,” the protesters said, “and the roads will become much better.”
Such protests are interesting in three respects: First, they suggest that anger about real life experiences now can take the form of public protest, an indication that at least one aspect of civil society may be emerging in Russia in places far beyond the radar screen of Moscow observers.
Second, they highlight the ways in which such anger can quickly shift from being about concrete things to focusing on broader political questions, a pattern that may give ever more officials and politicians in the Russian Federation pause especially as the country moves into election season.
And third, such protests about highways call attention to a fundamental problem no one in Russia has found a way to address. On the one hand, Russia has fewer miles of paved roads relative to its size than any other country on earth. Consequently, it needs more roads and soon if its economy is to develop.
But at the same time, the existing roads are badly constructed – Russia has not changed the compression requirements for roadbeds since 1939 – constantly break apart, and require enormous expenditures just to keep them open, expenditures that are a major cash nexis between local governments and local business.
That opens the way to corruption and as the Vladivostok protest suggests to popular anger, something that Russian politicians may become more sensitive to at least for awhile as the country heads into elections later this year and especially in the spring of 2008.