An Imported Pandora's Box

When the government made the decision to raise import tariffs on used Japanese cars, it knew of course that the move would provoke discontent in the Far East. At the same time, the authorities are once again attempting to make it illegal to import cars with steering wheels on the right side. They have tried that before, but have always given up because of opposition from motorists. The farther east you go from the Urals, the greater the percentage of these Japanese cars you'll see on the roads. In Vladivostok, where most of the imported Japanese cars enter the country, barely a single Russian-made automobile can be found anywhere.

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In starting their latest campaign against used imported cars, government officials were prepared to encounter protests. They knew that there would be demonstrations in Vladivostok. What's the big deal? Let them yell and scream a bit, and then they'll settle down again.

The unpleasantness of having to deal with a little dissatisfaction from residents in the Far East is nothing in comparison to the problem of trying to save Russia's car industry. Factories are shutting down, companies are crippled with debt, and cars are not selling. The measures that the government is taking are unlikely to change the situation. It is far from certain that higher tariffs and a ban on importing cars with right-hand steering wheels will lead to sharply increased demand for new Russian models -- after all, consumers' buying power is falling because of the crisis, and banks are not giving out loans as freely as before. People will simply buy fewer cars than before.

What's more, the political fallout brought on by the new measures outweighs whatever benefits they might eventually provide for the economy. The flurry of protests that broke out in Siberia and the Far East were on such a scale that they can no longer be considered only isolated affairs. There were demonstrations across all of Russia, including Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad, where a significant number of drivers also own used imports. As might have been expected, the protests in Vladivostok were the most dramatic, including clashes with riot police and a blockade of the airport. It was revealing that a major protest was also held last week in Novosibirsk, a city that the authorities had considered quiet and less prone to activism.

Aside from mass protests by pensioners in 2005, Russia has not seen anything like these nationwide protests before. All past efforts by protest organizers to urge nationwide turnouts have ended with small and ineffective demonstrations. There have been frequent rallies for this or that cause, but the number of attendees never exceeded a few hundred. Not a single local flare-up of discontent ever escalated into a serious problem prompting intervention by law enforcement agencies, and they definitely did not represent a threat to political stability.

It appears that the government's decision has unintentionally created an occasion not only for protest, but for disenchanted citizens to mobilize. Demonstrating motorists began shouting radical slogans that clearly had no direct connection with the problem of higher tariffs. They were not calling for the authorities to reconsider their decision, but for the current leadership to step down.

During an economic crisis, mass consciousness evolves rapidly. Government leaders should not rely on their ratings from polls taken in previous years. People who were happy enough to vote for United Russia candidates yesterday, are today shouting "Resign!" with equal enthusiasm. As everybody knows, only a thin line separates love from hate. This is not a melodramatic operetta called "The Dissenters' March" or the ravings of a non-conformist Moscow intellectual. This is the new reality.

Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.