Baku, March 7 – Fed up with the bad state of roads in their region, Pskov residents are planning a demonstration under the slogan, residents of the western Russian city of Pskov are getting ready for a demonstration there on Sunday that is slated to take place under the slogan “I Pay Taxes? Where are the Roads?”
While this action and the group that organized it are unlikely to attract much attention either in Moscow or abroad, they merit attention as the latest indication of the rise of what some Russian sociologists call “the new informals,” groups of citizens who organize in defense of their own immediate, day-to-day interests.
The Pskov group, “Drive on the Right,” the way it was organized -- via the Internet -- and its goals – better roads or an explanation of why that is not happening -- are typical of these groups, which may be a better indicator of the Russian version of civil society than those measures typically applied.
This effort in Pskov was, appropriately enough, reported most extensively by the Sobkorr.ru portal, an Internet project that allows almost anyone with a story to tell to post it online so that others can learn what is going on despite official restrictions on much of the media (http://www.sobkorr.ru/news/47CEA3D9E8A53.html).
According to the Sobkorr.ru report, the Pskov drivers issued the following explanation for their action: “We have waited a long time for the authorities to put the roads in order, but instead of waiting any longer, we hve decided to express our viewson the quality of repair and the state of streets n our city!”
“The idea of conducting our action,” the group’s appeal said, “was born during an online discussion. Our main goal is bringing order to the reconstruction of roads. In the city, we have thousands of officially registered cars, and their owners constantly pay transportation taxes.”
“Naturally,” it continued, “the question arises: where is the money of the taxpayers going? [And] the more of us their will be [at the protest], the greater impact our voices will have.” And it warned that if the authorities do not respond promptly, then organizers will take over “tougher” but unspecified actions.
There are three reasons Pskov drivers are so angry: First, the state of roads in that region is so bad that, by making it difficult for people to get to apothecary shops or hospitals, the roads alone have depressed life expectancy to below 50 for men in rural parts of the oblast, one of the lowest in the Russian Federation.
Second, people there recently saw what a small amount of money could do for the roads: The federal authorities came in during the month of February and improved the Pskov roads leading to voting places in order to ensure that turnout in the presidential vote last Sunday would be as high as possible.
And third, because ever more Pskov residents own cars and pay taxes on them, they are confident that officials have all the money needed to fix the roads, and consequently, many Pskov residents believe that their failure to do so means that the bureaucrats are “pocketing” the funds.
While such a protest lacks the cachet of a political or human rights demonstration in Moscow or St. Petersburg or a nationalist mobilization in the northern Caucasus and while the organizers behind it won’t be counted as an NGO by many Western monitors, this type of action may typify the way Russia’s version of civil society will emerge.
If so, then such actions – and they are taking place throughout Russia on a wide variety of issues – may prove far more important than some of the other more widely-covered protests not only as a school for society but as a venue in which Russians can acquire the sense of efficacy that could eventually power broader political action.
UPDATE on March 12. The unsanctioned demonstration “I Pay Taxes Where Are My Roads” took place in Pskov as scheduled, according to a new Sobkorr report. More than 100 drivers took part (http://www.sobkorr.ru/news/47D6DE6494B05.html).