Primorye Protests Don't Sway Putin

ReutersRiot police roughly detaining protesters Sunday in Vladivostok. "This is the worst thing that could have happened," said Vladimir Litvinov of a car owners club.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the government would stick to its commitment to Russia's ailing auto industry Friday, giving no sign he would reconsider an increase in tariffs on imported cars that has sparked protests across the country.

The protests continued over the weekend, with up to 100 people detained when OMON riot police broke up a demonstration in Vladivostok on Sunday, and about 50 protesters turning up at a rally in the cold in Moscow.

The Primorye region, where Vladivostok is located, relies heavily on the import and sale of used Japanese cars, and locals have decried a government decree signed by Putin on Dec. 10 raising import tariffs on cars by as much as 200 percent. The new duties are to come into effect on Jan. 12.

About 500 people gathered on the main square of Vladivostok, around the city's main New Year's tree, when riot police brought in from Moscow ordered the crowd to disperse. They then detained up to 100 people, beating some of them and breaking reporters' equipment, The Associated Press reported. The Vladivostok police department declined to comment Sunday, as did the Vladivostok ambulance service, saying they only talk to journalists face to face.

"This is the first time people have been beaten like this here," said Vladimir Litvinov, a coordinator of the Primorye branch of the Russian Federation of Auto Owners. "This is the worst thing that could have happened."

Following the first major protests in the region, on Dec. 14, Primorye Governor Sergei Darkin and the region's legislature asked the State Duma and government to reconsider, but the import duties appear to pit the interests of residents of the Far East, and the Primorye region in particular, against those of Russian automakers, whose plants are located almost exclusively West of the Ural Mountains.

But there was also a small, officially sanctioned protest in Moscow, to go along with those in cities like Khabarovsk, Tyumen and Novosibirsk, among others.

Two people at the Bolotnaya Ploshchad protest on Sunday held of a banner reading "Deputies, Switch to a [Lada] Kalina, and Prime Minister, Switch to a Trolley."


Sergey Ponomarev / AP
Protesters on Bolotnaya Ploshchad on Sunday. One poster reads, "Today they raise car tariffs, tomorrow food prices!"


The 50 people who turned up were well below the 150 that had been allowed for the event and were required to pass though a metal detector to enter the square, which was ringed by police. The police did not try to interfere with the protest.

The organizers handed out stickers reading "Stop the increase in import tariffs" and yellow ribbons.

"We don't have slogans saying the government should resign," said Sergei Kanayev, one of the organizers of the event. "Ours is a peaceful protest."

Nevertheless, he voiced support for the illegal protesters in Vladivostok on Sunday, saying they were "harshly dispersed."

"They are splitting Russia into two parts," he said. "The Far East has nothing to do except protest."

There were signs that other groups were piggybacking on the issue. At least five members of the ultranationalist group Movement Against Illegal Immigration were part of the crowd.

The head of the Moscow branch, Vladimir Basmanov, said that the movement was offering "information support" for protests across the country.

"It's a blow to the people," he said. "We are with the people."

Some protesters had come from other cities. Sergei Teryokhin, who heads the Yaroslavl Union of Car Drivers, said he was part of a group of 15 people who came to oppose the hike in import duties.

"We decided to express our disagreement with the way the government is acting," Teryokhin said. "The rise in tariffs won't have any positive effect whatsoever on the development of the Russian car industry."

Teryokhin said he drives a Mazda which he bought in Japan and brought back with the help of friends in the Vladivostok car industry.

At the Friday meeting with key automotive industry executives in Naberezhniye Chelny, Tatarstan, Putin made it clear that he had no plans to reconsider the move to higher import duties, which Russian producers say would boost sagging sales.

"Today, when our automakers are forced to cut back on production, I think it is unacceptable to spend money on imported cars," Putin, who himself is usually transported in a government Mercedes, said at the meeting, a transcript posted on the government's web site said.

Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, who was also present at the meeting, described the protesters as "a bunch of swindlers," Kommersant reported, saying that the real issue was that transporting Russian-made cars to the Far East made them too expensive.


RIA-Novosti / AP
Putin visiting the KamAZ plant in Naberezhniye Chelny, Tatarstan, on Friday.


In an effort to address the problem, Putin offered to pay Russian Railways out of the federal budget to cover the costs of shipping the cars east.

"This will completely cover these expenses for people in the Far East and Eastern Siberia," he said.

But Litvinov of the Federation of Auto Owners said Putin was missing the point.

"If a train carrying cars made in Russia arrived in Vladivostok right now, it would probably be set on fire," Litvinov said. "The proposal is humiliating."

He said that the sale of imported cars is essential to keeping the economy of the Far East going, so cheaper Russian-made cars were not the answer, and the duties collected would end up in Moscow, not Primorye.

Alexei Titkov, an expert at the Institute of Regional Politics agreed, but said it was unlikely the opponents of the new duties would get their way.

"In a conflict between the auto industry and the importers of Primorye, the industrialists of the European part of Russia are likely to win," Titkov said.

Sunday's protests in Primorye were more vocal as people lose hope that the government will change its mind, but the increased unrest in the region has been ignored by state television.

Channel One's Sunday coverage focused on last week's rioting in Greece and the arrival of the Kremlin's New Year's tree, but made no mention of the protests.

Internet blogs and forums, however, are full of stories from people who have had their driver's licenses or photo equipment confiscated, while others write about having been assaulted and arrested by police.

While some forums are now posting administrator warnings that political posts will be deleted, others are becoming more radical. One of the most active web sites, The-right.org, whose logo up until Sunday showed a United Russia bear face to face with the Amur Tiger, now has a bleeding red vendetta sign stamped over the image of the bear.

In an apparent attempt to fight fire with fire, Russian automakers organized their own rallies in support of the tariff measures last week.

AvtoVAZ union workers gathered in the company's home city of Tolyatti and Volga-maker GAZ employees held an event in Nizhny Novgorod Friday, Interfax reported.

Russian car producers have been hit hard by the economic crisis, with plants stopping production as demand is likely to fall by up to 47 percent, the Ministry of Industry and Commerce said Friday. Truck producer KamAZ has laid off 3,000 temporary workers and announced Friday that it would shut down its assembly line for a month. AvtoVAZ reported Saturday that it was halting production until Jan. 30.

Among the aid measures for the auto industry, Putin offered to give 12.5 billion rubles ($452 million) to federal agencies like the Emergency Situations Ministry for the purchase Russian-made cars in 2009.

He also said 40 billion rubles would be allocated from "various sources" to a special leasing company created in the Transportation Ministry to facilitate other government purchases of Russian cars.

The government will also help automakers to issue more shares, while the leasing companies will have access to credit lines of up to 43 billion rubles, Putin said.

"There should be effective help for automakers in attracting financial resources," Putin said, adding that foreign companies producing cars in Russia can also expect government support.

Deputy Finance Minister Alexander Novak said at the meeting that "direct financial support from the government to the auto industry will be over 50 billion rubles," while 173 billion more would be made available in the form of loans and leasing arrangements.

Maria Levina contributed to this report.