Vienna, December 17 – Moscow economist Yevgeny Gontmakher’s warning of two weeks ago that the financial crisis is likely to trigger protests in regional centers came true over the weekend in Vladivostok, where some 700 drivers blocked the city center and the airport to demand that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rescind the new tariff on imported cars.
Gontmakher attracted a great deal of attention when he suggested in a “Vedomosti” article on December 3 that Russia could face a series of Novocherkassk-like popular protests in the coming year, with government officials even warning that newspaper against publishing such “extremist” materials (www.vedomosti.ru/newspaper/article.shtml?2008/12/03/171949).
But events in Vladivostok show that cities dependent on a single industry are particularly at risk because central policy makers routinely act in ways that provoke the situation and local authorities are unable or unwilling to react in a useful way, according to Sobkorr.ru’s Sergey Petrunin (www.sobkorr.ru/news/4946461F28A46.html).
“What happened in Vladivostok?” Petrunin asks rhetorically in an article posted online today. “Evidently” when Putin signed the decree on December 9 about raising import tariffs on imported cars, the Sobkorr.ru observer says, the premier “wanted to do something as good as possible.”
But the results turned out “as always” in an unfortunate way, he notes, “because in the traditional struggle with genuine federalism, the prime minister simply forgot about the particular features of a region,” where Vladivostok is located. There, few people have ever driven Russian cars, and Moscow’s move against imports is thus a real problem.
For people living in that distant region and “not even having automobile connections even with neighboring Siberia, an exception to the rules was made: the authorities permitted the introduction of cars [with steering wheels on the right] from Japan and their use there without the right to sell them in other parts of the country.”
On Sunday, more than 700 drivers blocked streets and the airport to demand that Putin back down and said they would return and possibly block the Trans-Siberian railroad if the Moscow prime minister did not. And as Petrunin notes, videos posted on the Internet show that “the local militia reacted with understanding” to what they were doing.
As a result, the protesters demanded and got local officials to agree to give them radio and television time to air their grievances, and today, the regional parliament adopted their demands as a government appeal. According to Petrunin, there is thus “a serious split of the elites” in that region, something everyone in the “power vertical” should be concerned about.
But perhaps more worrisome to the authorities both locally and in Moscow were some of the slogans that the protesters carried. Many cars featured printed signs saying “Separate Moscow from Russia,” and at least a few had posters saying “Give Vladivostok and the Kuriles to Japan” (For pictures of these, see kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2008/12/15/62806.shtml.)
And noting that similar protests against the import duties on cars took place in Novosibirsk, Kaliningrad, Moscow, St. Petersburg “and other cities of Russia,” one Chechen site asked, with perhaps more hope than expectation, whether “the fear” many Russians have had of Putin has finally disappeared (kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2008/12/14/62794.shtml).
Meanwhile, in another development in Vladivostok, Russia’s own “bridge to nowhere” project continued to develop, with “Moskovsky komsomolets” reporting that the infrastructure required for the holding of the 2012 summit of the Asian-Pacific Economic Community there is far from complete (www.mk.ru/blogs/idmk/2008/12/17/mk-daily/386638/).
The plans for that, just like Putin’s decision to impose import tariffs in order to protect the domestic automobile industry, may have been for the best, the paper’s Aleksandr Grishin writes, but as always, things have turned out according to Chernomyrdin’s formula for Russia in a far less good way.
Hundreds of billions of rubles, the journalist says, have been poured into this project. Much has been wasted and even more has been skimmed off. As a result, Moscow risks being even more embarrassed when the time comes for the scheduled meeting than it probably feels about the Vladivostok demos which after all have attracted little attention in the Moscow media.