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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

National Protests Set for Sunday

Thousands of drivers intend to honk their horns and jam streets on Sunday, while scores of other people plan to gather in protest on Pushkin Square and at other locations across the country.

In a possible sign of things to come, the protests are being organized not by any political party but by grassroots organizations that are frustrated with the authorities and no longer feel they can count on the parties for help.

The drivers aim to express their indignation over the recent conviction of a driver in the car crash that killed Altai Governor Mikhail Yevdokimov, while the others will assail government plans to further increase housing and utility costs.

The car protest, organized by the Free Choice Motorists' Movement, a nongovernmental organization, will start at noon on Krylatskaya Ulitsa in western Moscow, and drivers will slowly drive to Vorobyoviye Gory in the southeast, honking their horns, blinking their lights and flying orange ribbons and signs reading, "Today Shcherbinsky, tomorrow you."

Oleg Shcherbinsky was making a left turn off a highway in the Altai region in August when the Mercedes carrying Yevdokimov raced up from behind at a speed of 149 to 200 kilometers per hour, or perhaps even more. The Mercedes tried to pass on the left, grazed the car and flew off the road. The governor, his bodyguard and his driver died.

A court last Friday ruled that Shcherbinsky should have yielded to the governor's car and sentenced him to four years in a labor colony.

"We want to defend the right of the simple citizen since we believe that the sentence was completely unfair," said Vyacheslav Lysakov, the head of the drivers association.

"That sentence has really shocked people, because it shows that in this country anyone can be put in jail, even if he is innocent," he said.

The orange ribbons are not in support of Ukraine's Orange Revolution but an attempt to draw more attention, Lysakov said.

"Recently, bureaucrats have been getting very emotional when they see them," he added.

Lysakov's group paid $2,000 in travel expenses for Shcherbinsky's lawyer to fly from Moscow to Barnaul to attend the trial. The lawyer argued in court that the Mercedes was traveling so fast that Shcherbinsky had no time to yield.

Drivers on Sunday will also stage protests in St. Petersburg, Magadan, Vladivostok, Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk and Novosibirsk, among other cities, Lysakov said.

Meanwhile, the Union of Coordination Councils, a coalition of small NGOs born out of protests over the monetization of state benefits last year, expects to draw about 1,000 people to Pushkin Square to denounce rising housing and utility costs. Utility and housing costs increased 23.5 percent last year, according to State Statistics Service figures, but the government is pushing for further reform that calls for additional increases.

"We want to have our say in that reform. This is why we are gathering people all over Russia," said Andrei Demidov, a senior official in the Union of Coordination Councils.

Demidov said even larger protests would be held in St. Petersburg, Izhevsk, Kurgan, Omsk and Samara.

"More people are expected to turn up at the demonstrations in the regions than in Moscow," he said. "People are much poorer there and will be more affected by the reform."

But to achieve their goals, both Lysakov and Demidov said they were intentionally distancing themselves from all political parties.

"Our movement was born spontaneously, and our aim is to defend the rights of Russia's 20 million drivers. We don't want to be used by political parties as an instrument for their political ambitions," Lysakov said.

He and Demidov said a political alignment would destroy their work, and cause members to start quarrelling about politics and forget about the social issues that unite them.

Grassroots protests have been few and far between since President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000. The first spontaneous rallies hit the country in January of last year, when the state scrapped benefits for millions of pensioners, disabled people, war veterans and others in favor of small cash payments.

Political parties joined in after people had already taken to the streets, but no parties initiated the protests.

Lysakov and Demidov said they believed the best way to make their voices heard was to speak to the authorities directly and not through political intermediaries.

Lysakov recalled that drivers blocked Kutuzovsky Prospekt in May to oppose a government proposal to prohibit right-hand steering wheels. The proposal was soon tabled. "We achieved this by ourselves. No parties helped us," he said.

His group was formed on May 19 to protest the government initiative to ban right-hand steering wheels, which are popular with owners of secondhand cars in the Far East. The group has about 4,000 members.

The Union of Coordination Councils was created in April, after the height of the benefits protests.

The lack of confidence in political parties is unsurprising and is the result of a Kremlin drive to clear the country of any real opposition voices, said Sergei Mikheyev, a senior analyst at the Center for Political Technologies.

"Most parties are either linked to the Kremlin or afraid of opposing the Kremlin," Mikheyev said. "This is why people believe that parties are only capable of taking care of the authorities' interests."

Parties also have not developed as those in Western democracies, said Dmitry Orlov, a political analyst with the Agency for Political and Economic Communications. "People prefer to count on themselves. They don't see how parties can help them to solve their problems," he said.

Fifty-three percent of Russians do not trust parties, while 19 percent do, according to a national survey carried out by the state-controlled VTsIOM polling agency last month. Perhaps tellingly, 28 percent found it difficult to respond.

People believe that parties are "far from their needs" and only represent the interests of the elite, said Dmitry Polikanov, a senior official with VTsIOM.

The survey of 1,592 people had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.

A Communist State Duma deputy took issue with the notion that the opposition had disappeared. "When we organize a demonstration, it is not given airtime on the state media, and people think that we don't do anything," Deputy Vladimir Kashin said.

Alexander Kurdyumov, a deputy with the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, said he believed most people did trust parties. "If people didn't trust parties, most of them would have voted 'against all,'" he said, referring to one of the options on ballots. "But it is not like that. It means that people believe in parties."

Grassroots protests could grow as the gap continues to widen between the rich and the poor and threatens to cross the threshold beyond which social discontent reaches dangerous levels, the analysts said.

In 2004, the richest 10 percent of Russians earned 14.8 times more than the poorest 10 percent, according to figures published by the State Statistics Service last year.

But sociologists believe the real disparity may be larger, and that the richest may earn up to 40 times more than the poorest, because people often do not declare their income in full.