Monday, January 12, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Civil Society in the Driver’s Seat? Protests by Russia’s Car Owners Become Increasingly Political

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 12 – Protests by Russian drivers in the Far East are not only spreading to other parts of the country but are advancing ever broader political demands, the result of Moscow’s failure to respond to demonstrators’ demands and the efforts of some to exploit such popular anger either to promote civil society or their own narrower political agendas.
And as the demonstrations have grown and become more political – some participants are calling for a general strike against the regime on January 31 if Moscow does not lift the new tariffs on cars as of today – a new group has emerged on the political landscape, one that some see as a manifestation of civil society while others fear is a provocation or worse.
Calling itself TIGR (from the first letters of the Russian words for Comradeship of Activist Citizens of Russia) and using the Siberian tiger on its shield to “symbolize the freedom-loving quality and beauty of that Far Eastern animal,” the group which appeared only last week has set up a web forum ( and put forward 16 major demands.
Those demands include three closely related to the automobile owners’ interests – reduction of import duties, no ban on right-side driving wheels, and a reduction in price for gas – and four more economic ones – no increase in price for communal services, higher pay for workers, higher pensions, and an end to mass dismissals from work.
But nine demands – and all are listed at -- are political: the dismissal of the government, freedom speech, an end to limitations on protests, a reversal on limitations on jury trials and the definition of treason, a defense of the Constitution, a reduction in the size of the bureaucracy, the adoption of serious anti-corruption measures, the restoration of the “against all” provision on ballots, and the election of governors.
Because so little is known about the new group and those who may be behind it, surveyed human rights experts and analysts as to whether this group represents a genuine expression of civil society or whether it is either a stalking horse for some political party or a provocation organized by the government to justify a crackdown.
Not surprisingly, those surveyed were divided in their assessment of this group and of what it is likely to mean for the future of society and politics in the Russian Federation (
Oleg Kozlovsky, the coordinator of the Defense Movement, said that as far as he could tell, “this movement is beginning from below,” for which he said he was “glad” and could only “welcome,” although he acknowledged that it was possible that “someone is helping” the drivers and perhaps attempting to use them.
Ilya Yashin of the Solidarity Movement shared that view, arguing that the increasingly political demands of the drivers reflect their understanding of their own interests and of the sad reality that the current Russian government is completely uninterested in responding to their interests or to those of anyone but itself.
Political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin, on the other hand, was more skeptical. He said that the movement was both “artificial:” and “provocative,” the first because there is “no serious demand” in society for political change – people are angry without focus – and the second because the advancement of such demands could be used by the regime to justify repression.
Most of the others queried were unwilling to come down on one side or the other, but Anna Karetnikova, the coordinate of the Union of Solidarity with Political Prisoners, told the portal that she had been giving legal advice to the movement over the last week and was impressed with it.
The skepticism about the genuineness of this new movement reflects longstanding Russian experience – the driver’s initiative could prove to be the latest reincarnation of the pre-1917 Zubatov union – and is of course one of the reasons many Russians will be reluctant to link up their fate with it.
But as January 31st approaches and if the Communist Party goes ahead with its plans for an all-Russian strike drawing on the demands of TIGR as “Novyye izvestiya” suggests is likely (, then the real nature of this Siberian tiger should become evident: a small drive toward civil society or a longer one in the opposite direction.

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