Foreign Car Duty Draws Criticism

A duty on imported cars that sparked protests around the country came into effect on Monday, drawing criticism from the European Union and renewed ire from domestic motorists.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Dec. 10 increasing tariffs on foreign cars by between 10 percent and 20 percent, a move the government has sought to portray as aid for domestic automakers. But the decision created a wave of unrest, most notably in the far eastern Primorye region where many make a living importing used cars from Japan.

Vyacheslav Lysakov, head of the Free Choice Motorists' Movement, estimated that as many as 200,000 people in the Primorye region would lose their jobs as a direct result of the increase.

"For small Primorye cities, the foreign-car import market is the only industry -- there aren't any other jobs," he said.

A spokesman for the European Commission told reporters Monday that the body was disappointed by the decision and that the duties ran counter to Russia's 13-year bid to join the World Trade Organization.

The tariff was raised to 54 percent from 48 percent and applies to foreign-made cars that are no more than three years old and cost less than 325,000 rubles ($10,500). More than 12,000 used cars traveled through customs in Vladivostok in the last few days of December as importers rushed to take advantage of the old rate, Itar-Tass reported.

While the tariff was intended to assist the ailing domestic industry, it irked consumers, who often find foreign-made cars preferable to Russian brands.

More than 100 protesters were detained in Vladivostok on Dec. 20 and 21 after OMON riot police were brought in to break up a demonstration, and a group of about 50 picketers gathered in Moscow the same weekend.

Protests were held in Vladivostok, St. Petersburg, Irkutsk and Chita as recently as last week, Ekho Moskvy radio reported.