Vienna, December 22 – In yet another indication that Moscow fears protests in the regions could get support from local governments and thus represent a threat to itself, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin send OMON units from Moscow, Daghestan and two Siberian cities to ruthlessly suppress a second weekend of demonstrations in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok.
But his transparent effort to send a message to more than just the residents of the Russian Far East appears to have backfired. Not only have people elsewhere organized similar protests, but some Russians are asking why Moscow television has not reported on the Vladivostok events and even whether the Duma should reverse Putin’s order imposing tariffs on foreign cars.
And consequently, like anyone who tries to put out a grease fire by throwing water at it --and highlights his own weakness by bringing the water from so far away -- Putin may now be learning that his actions have had the unintended consequence of transforming what had been a regionally-based demonstration about cars into an all-Russian protest against himself.
The current situation began on December 9 when Putin in the name of protecting Russia’s domestic automobile producers imposed an additional tariff on imported cars. That hit the Russian Far East especially hard because people there who own cars generally own Japanese brands with steering wheels on the right.
Then on the weekend of December 13-14, a column of 700 cars paraded through Vladivostok and blocked access to the airport for some hours to protest the new tariff. Leaders of the group said that they would stage a larger protest meeting on December 20 or 21st if Putin did not reverse himself.
While the Russian government offered some subsidies to those who would be hit hardest by the tariff, Putin refused to back down. And yesterday more than 2,000 people demonstrated in Vladivostok, this time not only against the tariffs but with a demand that Putin be dismissed as prime minister (www.polit.ru/event/2008/12/22/omon.html).
Yesterday’s Vladivostok protest followed demonstrations of a similar kind in Kaliningrad, Tomsk, Barnaul, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Chita, Khabarovsk, Komsomolsk-na-Amure, Kazan, Abakan, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, St. Petersburg, Moscow and other Russian cities (www.sobkorr.ru/news/494E41967F4F4.html).
According to one source, local officials in Vladivostok, many of whom were openly sympathetic to the demonstrators a week ago, were so concerned with the possibility that yesterday’s demonstration might get out of hand that they appealed to regional and Moscow officials for aid (www.rusrep.ru/articles/2008/12/22/poshliny/).
But even if that appeal was made, it seems more likely that Putin decided that he could not count on the local militia to control the situation in the way that he wanted and that only by sending in forces not linked to the city could he count on the suppression of what was rapidly becoming an anti-Putin manifestation.
(That Moscow views regional militias as increasingly unreliable is suggested by a report this week that the Russian interior ministry is replacing senior commanders in various parts of the country not with their deputies as had been true earlier but with officials dispatched from elsewhere who have few local ties (www.argumenti.ru/publications/8692).)
In any case, the Putin government sent in ten busloads of forces from the capital, the North Caucasus, and other cities far from Vladivostok in the expectation that they would behave more forcefully than the locals. That expectation proved entirely reasonable, and the OMON militia from elsewhere beat up many, including journalists and arrested up to 200 demonstrators.
Worse, the OMON officers did not limit their attacks to protesters after the latter refused to disperse but lashed out at people walking by with their children who had, nothing to do with the demonstration, according to the Japanese automobile news site, www.drom.ru, and photographs carried on various blogs.
Among the journalists who suffered were some from the Russia television channel, TV Tsentr, NTV, Channel One, “Izvestiya,” Interfax, and PTR. According to many reports, the OMON beat some of these so severely that they were hospitalized where according to some reports at least one remains 24 hours later.
According to Polit.ru, the journalists were shocked by the behavior of the OMON units from Moscow, including one that has gained notoriety in the past from its efforts at crowd control and intimidation of the opponents of the regime: The “manners” of these outsiders were very different than those of the militia in Vladivostok (www.polit.ru/news/2008/12/21/88.html
Putin and the imported OMON units achieved some of their goals but not all of them. On the one hand, they succeeded in blocking television coverage of these events, thus limiting the number of Russians who would know about protests taking place in a city nine time zones away from the Russian capital.
But on the other, this very suppression of information has led many Russians to become even more cynical about television and to turn to the Internet and, where they are still available, foreign radio broadcasts, for information, channels which Putin and the Russian government do not control (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2008/95/00.html).
And while workers at Russian automobile factories back what Putin has done and while many Moscow writers dismiss all these events as being about a small city far away, there are indications that within the political class, some are worried enough that there is even talk of reversing Putin’s decision (www.babr.ru/?pt=news&event=v1&IDE=49459).
That probably won’t happen anytime soon but neither will there be a quick end to protest demonstrations like the ones that have been taking place in Vladivostok or – and this is far more important – the rising tide of popular anger against Moscow’s pretensions in many regions of the Russian Federation.