In a rare example of grassroots political power, angry protests by drivers prompted lawmakers in the far eastern Primorye region on Monday to ask the country's two leaders to delay raising import duties on foreign cars. The Primorye regional legislature, led by United Russia deputies, voted unanimously Monday to ask President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to postpone the tariffs, which take effect on Jan. 11, according to a decree signed by Putin. Thousands of drivers took to the streets in several far eastern cities and towns Sunday to protest the tariffs, blocking traffic, clashing with police, openly insulting Putin and Medvedev and even calling on Putin to resign. Putin's decree would increase the prices for imported cars by between 10 and 20 percent, a move the government has defended as a way of protecting domestic auto makers during the growing financial crisis.
According to the Russian daily Kommersant, similar though less massive protests took place in Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk. In Novosibirsk, an officially sanctioned picket of 100 people on the main city square was joined by 200 cars whose drivers argued with the police and tried to block traffic. In Krasnoyarsk, a column of 300 cars sporting black ribbons drove very slowly through city streets, then parked across from the regional government headquarters and honked their horns for fives minutes. Many people who drove by also honked in support.
Slogans at the rallies -- carried by protesters on foot or displayed on the rear windows of cars -- included: "Putin, trade your Mercedes for a Volga!", "Mr. Putin, help the tycoons out of your own pocket!", and "Raise the tariffs on the actions of the Russian government."
In Vladivostok, when Mayor Alexei Pushkarev begged the protesters to disperse, saying that they had already made their point, some people in the crowd shouted, "We need Channel One so that the whole country would know about our demands: no higher tariffs and cheaper gasoline!" Indeed, none of the state-controlled TV channels have given the protests any coverage at all. The average Russian will know nothing about them, neutralizing the potentially empowering and mobilizing effect of these events.
All this happens at a time when Putin's aura as the savior of the nation may be finally wearing off. According to a new poll by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, reported in Izvestia, not only did Putin's televised Q & A with the people have a smaller audience than in previous years (17%), but only 48% of those who watched said they were satisfied with Putin's answers.
Meanwhile, there are more signs that the Kremlin is preparing to tighten its grip on dissent, or at least to give itself a weapon to squash dissent when they want to. A new law submitted to the parliament by the government would broaden the definition of treason. Existing Russian law defines treason as "hostile actions intended to damage the security of the Russian Federation against foreign threats." In the amended version, the definition of treason would include "rendering financial, material, consultative, or other assistance to a foreign state, a foreign or international organization, or representatives thereof in activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation, including its constitutional system, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity and statehood." Many human rights activists are concerned that this signifies a de facto return to Stalinist law which made "anti-Soviet activity" a crime. Perhaps this is hyperbole, but is it too much of a stretch to think that this law could be directed against an opposition newspaper or website, or a human rights group critical of the government, which has received assistance from the USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, or the Soros Foundation?