Russians protest plan to raise car import tariffs

Putin says hike will benefit auto industry

Demonstrators in Vladivostok, Russia, yesterday displayed Russian and Japanese flags as they protested the government's plans to raise tariffs on imported used Japanese cars. Demonstrators in Vladivostok, Russia, yesterday displayed Russian and Japanese flags as they protested the government's plans to raise tariffs on imported used Japanese cars. (Associated Press)
By Paul Sonne
Associated Press / December 21, 2008
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MOSCOW - Sergei Morozov fears that new import tariffs will keep him from buying the car he wants for months. The Kremlin fears Morozov's discontent - and that of thousands of other Russians - will snowball into the biggest challenge to its authority in years.

About 500 motorists rallied yesterday in Vladivostok, the main port on Russia's Pacific coast, to protest the government's decision to raise car import tariffs, and thousands of others are expected to stage similar demonstrations across Russia today.

The wave of protests may serve as a harbinger of much broader discontent among Russians accustomed to years of strong economic growth and a consumer boom.

The Russian government is grappling with the worst economic crisis in a decade, as oil prices tank, the ruble slides, and unemployment steadily creeps up.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Friday that the tariffs were designed to prop up demand for Russian-made cars and secure jobs in the ailing Russian auto industry.

But Morozov, a 21-year-old university student who has been gunning up support for the Moscow protest on YouTube, said Russian cars just aren't any good.

Foreign cars "are much better than those produced in our country, and they are affordable for average people," he said. "It's not like I earn millions of dollars and can ride around in a new Audi like our president or Duma deputies."

The tariff increase would send prices for used foreign-made cars up 50 percent, while prices for new foreign-made cars could jump as much as 15 percent. The move will not affect cars produced in Russia by foreign companies.

People in Vladivostok, which is the key hub for cars imported from Japan, would suffer more than others. With local industries in decline since the Soviet collapse, many residents of the economically struggling region depend on car import business to earn their living.

Participants in yesterday's protest there carried slogans such as "Putin, fight the oligarchs, not the people!" and played Soviet-era war and revolutionary songs.

Motorists in over 40 Russian cities are to take to the streets today to urge the cancellation of the tariff increase.

The protests would test the mettle of the Kremlin, which has sidelined political opponents and established tight controls over civil society and the media during Putin's eight-year presidential tenure, rolling back many post-Soviet freedoms.

The growing social discontent will pose a serious challenge to authorities who have faced little threat from the fragmented opposition and politically apathetic population during the years of the oil-driven boom.

Police quickly moved in to disband yesterday's protest, briefly detaining about 20 participants on charges of taking part in an unsanctioned rally.

But in what could be an ominous sign for authorities, some police officers openly showed their sympathy to protesters during the rally in Vladivostok. One officer told demonstrators that police support their demands and only moved to disperse the rally for fear of losing their jobs.

The uproar over tariffs comes following growing civil unrest in other regions about other social issues. Migrant workers recently protested wage arrears in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg.

In the Siberian town of Barnaul, pensioners protested the withdrawal of discounted fares on public transport.

With domestic and foreign companies curtailing car production in Russia and warning of potential layoffs, the Kremlin is increasingly worried about the fate of the industry, which altogether employs more than 1.5 million workers.

While auto industry workers have applauded the decision, Russian consumers and others involved in the $30.5 billion car import business have not. Russians say they have a right to buy what they want on the free market and do not want to pay to support the Russian auto industry.

Vyacheslav Lysakov, the leader of Russia's Free Choice Motorists, said drivers were a particularly vocal sector of middle-class society.

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