Russia’s Far East says: “No New Taxes!”

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In Russia, December 14 is remembered as the day of the Decembrist Uprising of 1825, but today’s dissenters are marking it as a annual day of protest.  While most international reporting has focused on the arrests of some 90 demonstrators at the sparsely attended the Dissenters’ March in Moscow, on the other side of the country thousands of people paralyzed the city of Vladivostok for five hours in a protest against taxes on the purchase of foreign cars.  The increase set to take effect on January 11, 2009 will increase the price of an imported car by 10 to 20 percent.

The action pits the Russian government and citizen against each other in the form of a classic tax revolt.  Ironically, the government’s attempt to protect the fledgling Russian auto industry from foreign competition has found its greatest foe among the very people Russia’s economic boom has benefited: those Russians who now have enough disposable income to buy a new car.  According to one figure, about 90% of small cars in Primorya are Japanese models.  Much of the protesters’ anger was directed at Putin with slogans like “Improve the standard of living, but no taxes!” and “Mr. Putin help the oligarchs from your own pocket!” Given the protest’s constituency,  economic theme, and target  is why Russian television was silent about the protests. According to one report, no central television station–NTV, Pervyi, or Rossiia–reported on the protests. The Russian print media and blogosphere, however, continues to be abuzz with reports and discussion of the significance of the protests.

The protest, which was organized by the Society for the Defense of Drivers of the Primorya, appeared to catch local authorities off guard.  Sure, the Vladivostok city administration gave a permit for the action, but it seems that they didn’t realize that it would garner that much support.  According to Kommersant, the action was a two pronged attack. About half of the  protest gathered in the center of the city in front of the city administration while a chain of cars caused a traffic jam to the airport.  According to Igor Pushkarev, the mayor of Vladivostok, the action paralyzed the city and “caused serious problems for tens of thousands of people” including delays in emergency vehicles, disruption of businesses, and deliveries to grocery stores.  It took the cops several hours to get control of the situation.  In the end, several tens of people were arrested, fined 2,000-2,500 rubles, and then released.  The organizers were fined 1,000 rubles.

The protesters can say that their action was a success.  They may have been dismissed by the national television media, but they got the attention of their intended target: local and national leaders. Today, deputies from Primorya voted unanimously to appeal to Medvedev, Putin and the State Duma to reverse the planned tariffs on foreign cars.  The Federal Council has already promised to help the protesters. One council member, Vyacheslav Fetisov, put it this way: “Once Primordtsy went out on the street it means that [the tariffs] will seriously affect their lives.” Funny how that didn’t cross his mind until now.

The protestors are serious. So much so that they aren’t going to take any empty words or gestures from goverment officals. They are already thinking about increasing the pressure with a repeat performance on December 21.