Unfortunate consequences of the government victory

24 December 2008

The protests against the government’s raising import tariffs on second-hand foreign cars, which had been held in Primorye Territory, were suppressed with predictable, but shocking, cruelty.

The developments are consistent with the traditional logic of political escalation. On the one hand, the demonstrators are becoming more radical and politicized, their movement is broadening.

The protests against the government’s raising import tariffs on second-hand foreign cars, which had been held in Primorye Territory, were suppressed with predictable, but shocking, cruelty.

The developments are consistent with the traditional logic of political escalation. On the one hand, the demonstrators are becoming more radical and politicized, their movement is broadening. At first, motorists and drivers, who were discontented with new tariffs and restrictions, took part in the demonstrations (the traffic of cars from Japan to Russia ensures tens of thousands jobs in Siberia and the Far East). Later on, those who are against the housing and communal services reforms and those who are dissatisfied with the government policy in general joined the demonstrating motorists. Therefore, the demand that the government should cancel its decision on raising import tariffs on foreign cars has given place to the demand that the government should resign. Incidentally, this came as a shock to some of the original protest initiators who complained of the movement politicization. The government officials, in their turn, called the protests organizers “pilferers”, while some venal experts said that the protest actions in the Far East had been provoked by mafia or some other shady forces seeking to destabilize the situation.

The consequences are quite foreseeable.

The severe suppression of the Vladivostok protest march may create an illusion of the government victory for some time in particular since the New Year and Christmas holidays are coming in. The people will settle down, at least for a short while. But it is wrong to regard the protest problems as the isolated ‘Far Eastern’ affairs. The statement that from now on the delivery of the Russian cars to Primorye Territory will be state-subsidized has certainly offended the Siberian population that has the same problems. There were demonstrations across all of Russia with their participants’ number growing. It was revealing that the Vladivostok protest actions were broken up by the Moscow region and Khabarovsk OMON (riot police). There may not be enough reliable riot police units when protests break out in the entire country.

It looks like the government officials fail to realize that their actions are conductive to the politicization of the protests. What is more, they have bolstered the liberal opposition that had nearly ceased to exist and that now supports the demonstrating motorists. Many protesters do not side with the opposition, but when the conflict becomes more and more bitter and the law-enforcement agencies exert stronger and stronger pressure on the demonstrators, they are ready to accept assistance from virtually anybody.

Fortunately, fascist and nationalistic organizations failed to take advantage of this situation. Anyway, it would be strange in terms of ideology if they backed the people possessing the foreign cars. Although, if to get to the bottom, we will see that “Zhiguli” is also a foreign car to some degree, since it is descended from the Italian “Fiat”.

Here the nationalists came off worst because there is a balance of forces in the nationalistic movement and the political groups, which joined the protests, will all at once prevent them from participating in the future events. However it will be cold comfort for the authorities in January 2009 when the protests recommence again on broader public basis. The motorists’ movement is far from being defeated or smashed. It has time to reorganize itself as new tariffs will take effect not until the middle of January, before which the housing and communal services prices will be increased in the whole country. While in December the demonstrators demanded that the extortionate reforms of the housing and communal services should be stopped rather trying to win the favor of wider sections of the population, in January two protests may be united completely. The 2005 demonstrations showed what the mass discontent about the social policy is fraught with. At that time there was an economic boom in Russia, but today there is an economic recession. The mass dismissals of employees have already started. And they are not only white collars, but, for example, metallurgical workers, whose protests can be much more violent. The authorities forecast that the next wave of dismissals will take place in January, which is unlikely to further the social peace.

If politicization of the protests began, it will continue. The authorities can stop the process only through making concessions to the population. The experience of the 2005 protests is also significant in this respect. The moment the concessions were made, the protest movement started to recede, its radical part and leaders, who had taken thousands of people to the rallies, lost many their supporters. But the authorities should make concessions before the movement is consolidated and gain momentum. The government had such a chance – it was expected that the participants in the meeting in the Russian city of Naberezhnye Chelny would make the concessions. Alas, the authorities offered expensive and dubious measures instead of compromise. It seems that the law-enforcement agencies were ordered to quell the movement just then. I believe that doing that the authorities passed the ‘point of no return’. Now, even if the concessions are made, the avalanche-like developments cannot be stopped.

When deciding against making concessions to the demonstrators, the authorities wished to highlight their steadfastness and toughness. The authorities make it clear to us: “We won’t be bullied with protest marches, we ourselves can bully anybody”.

It is possible that such government officials’ firmness is explained by their underestimation of the situation rather than by their true self-reliance. It is risky to raise the stakes without controlling the game, but today the government does so.

© Copyright 2004-2008 Eurasia Heritage Foundation


Boris Kagarlitsky, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a Director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, Moscow. His latest book is Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System (2008)

About the authors

Boris Kagarlitsky

Boris Kagarlitsky is a well-known international commentator on Russian politics and society. Boris was a deputy to the Moscow City Soviet between 1990-93, during which time he was a member of the executive of the Socialist Party of Russia, co-founder of the Party of Labour, and advisor to the Chairperson of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia.  Previously, he was a student of art criticism and was imprisoned for two years for 'anti-Soviet' activities.

Boris' books include Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System (Pluto Press, February 2008, Russia Under Yeltsin And Putin: Neo-Liberal Autocracy (TNI/Pluto 2002) and New Realism, New Barbarism: The Crisis of Capitalism (Pluto 1999).