Vienna, January 9 – Despite brutal cold and holiday celebrations, more than a hundred automobile owners assembled yesterday in Blagoveshchensk, a city in the Russian Far East, to demand the reversal of Moscow’s imposition of new import taxes on foreign cars, government respect for their constitutional rights, and the dismissal of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The demonstration, which was organized by a group of car owners with the support of the local committee of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), was part of the broader protest launched in Vladivostok on December 20 and now including meetings in more than a dozen Russian cities (www.amurpolit.ru/28/socium/society/id_126029.html).
The militia harassed the demonstration but did not prevent the drivers from holding up placards saying “We have a right to elections!” and “We won’t sit in Russian junk heaps” and listening to speakers who denounced the government’s efforts to restrict the importation of foreign cars.
“Protest actions are the only way of starting a dialogue with the authorities,” Nikolay Dobrynsky, a participant, told Amurpolit.ru. “We insist that this dialogue be a two-way street,” even though the authorities have shown themselves unwilling to talk and responsive only when there were real protests.
Demonstrations have worked in the past, he continued, and consequently, Russians must use them again. In 1993, outrage greeted and ultimately forced Moscow to back down from its plans to ban cars with steering wheels on the right. And in 2005, protests forced officials to pull back from their plans to increase some charges for communal services.
But what are most striking and important about this and other recent meetings of car owners are not these calls for more demonstrations but rather the increasingly political nature of their demands.
One speaker in Blagoveshchensk said to the cheers of the crowd, “We must demand from Russian President Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev the dismissal of the government and Premier Putin,” a demand that was echoed in the resolution the meeting adopted and sent to the Kremlin (babr.ru/?pt=news&event=v1&IDE=49813).
The demonstrators said that in addition to posting the resolution online, they hoped to publish it in a newspaper. But they refused to say which one given the attacks on journalists in Vladivostok (www.sobkorr.ru/news/49533FC762A37.html) and the apparent firebombing of a newspaper office there (www.sobkorr.ru/news/49609D4C59045.html).
But the resolution contained yet another point going beyond the question of the import duties on cars: It called for officials to end their “practice” of seeking to block peaceful demonstrations by Russian citizens and employing “force” against those who succeed in coming together to put forward their demands.
The Blagoveshchensk meeting was also addressed by a government supporter. Natalya Pugacheva, a United Russia Duma deputy, told the group that demanding the dismissal of the government was “incorrect” over the import fees because Moscow had taken this step because it “cares about the people.”
Those in attendance were dismissive, especially when Pugacheva quickly departed from the scene in her own silver-colored Land Cruiser, a car that as everyone there knew is not of domestic Russian manufacture.
While the Blagoveshchensk demonstration was taking place, similar meetings were occurring in other cities in the Russian Far East and also in the northern capital, St. Petersburg. Although city officials had given organizers there permission, the militia harassed and briefly detained some participants (www.sobkorr.ru/news/4965F3123164D.html).
That meeting too also featured some calls for political change, but they apparently originated not so much from the automobile owners as from political activists who took advantage of the assembly to advance their agendas, yet another way in which these protest actions could grow into a broader challenge to the regime.
And consequently, it is not surprising that the authorities have moved against meetings that government-controlled media have largely neglected to cover, steps which one opposition figure said this week show how Medvedev and Putin are creating “a unified police space” in the country (www.kasparov.ru/material.php?id=495899DF8F318).