The New York Times reports:
Every society has a breaking point. In Boston it was the tea tax; in France it was Marie Antoinette’s wigs. If you’re curious where the breaking point may lie in Russia, try slamming the door as you get out of a taxicab — even the most rickety Soviet-era Lada. What will pass across the driver’s face is an expression of such exquisite suffering that you will first apologize and then run. Russians love their cars.
In the Soviet period, people were so maniacally protective that they locked their cars away from October until April while the roads were covered with salt. Drivers arriving home for the night would take their windshield wipers, spare tires and side mirrors inside with them, and some zealots were said to leave boards spiked with nails on the driver’s seat as a prophylactic against theft.
To this day, Russians will quietly tolerate hunger and repression, but it’s a bad idea to get between them and their cars. And the Kremlin apparently knows it. On Nov. 17, after an outcry from motorists, President Dmitri A. Medvedev intervened to block a bill that would have doubled taxes on car owners — a stinging humiliation for Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, which had approved it unanimously the previous Friday. Something almost unheard of had penetrated the membrane of Russian politics: the demands of its citizens.
“When motorists gather for a meeting, they don’t come out with political slogans,” said Kirill Formanchuk, 26, a lawyer in the city of Yekaterinburg who launched a local campaign against corrupt traffic police. “We have no ideology. It’s a revolt of people who are not satisfied — not for political reasons, not because our salaries have not been paid — but because something sacred has been taken from us, our car.”
He knows firsthand that Russia’s motorists are willing to stick their necks out. A few years ago, Mr. Formanchuk began protesting every time he was asked for a bribe, interrogating officers and filing formal complaints about each incident. In 2007, he went into a police station to register his car and was beaten so badly that he was hospitalized with brain and skull injuries.
What happened then is the surprise: Motorists’ groups held demonstrations in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. The protests were so widespread that they were covered by state-controlled television networks; a newscaster called the treatment of Mr. Formanchuk “outrageous.”
Another rare outburst occurred in 2005, when a 36-year-old railroad worker, Oleg Shcherbinsky, was hit by the governor of Altai’s car as it tried to pass him at high speed while he was making a left turn. The governor was killed, and Mr. Shcherbinsky was sentenced to four years in a labor colony for failing to make way for the official.
His sentence prompted huge protests, and motorists across Russia flew white ribbons in solidarity. The chorus of condemnation grew so loud that United Russia reversed its position and denounced the verdict. An appeals court released Mr. Shcherbinsky after 48 days in jail.
It may be, as one Russian commentator has suggested, that motorists are playing the role in Russia’s civic development that was expected to fall to entrepreneurs and small businessmen. Yuri Gladysh, writing for the opposition Web site kasparov.ru, said the “army of car owners” has enough muscle and organization to alarm Russian officials.
“For a car, a Russian will simply bite through the throat of a passer-by,” he wrote this month. “I know plenty of shop owners who in their hearts are prepared, if the state takes their business away, to return to some office job, with their Soviet-era diploma. But I don’t know a single motorist who would silently agree to the infringement of his rights.”
Not everyone saw the transport-tax reversal as the result of grass-roots democracy. Though motorists’ groups held protests against the proposed tax increase, including a five-minute “horn of wrath,” the actions passed virtually unnoticed in the capital.
Some Kremlin-watchers interpreted the reversal as a purely political move, signaling that Mr. Medvedev seeks to challenge the authority of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, or United Russia, which Mr. Putin heads. Others said both Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev were worried that the tax hike would damage their approval ratings — a touchy subject after October, when criticism of local elections sent their ratings into a brief but steep swoon.
But it would certainly not be unprecedented if angry motorists rattled the Kremlin. Last December, thousands of motorists and car dealers in the Far East took to the streets to protest tariffs on imported cars, amid concerns that the economic crisis would spark social unrest throughout the country. Officials in Moscow were so nervous that they sent riot police all the way from the capital to Vladivostok, a nine-hour flight, to break up a rally.
One reason the motorists may worry Moscow is that they are, mostly, young people. Pensioners demonstrate regularly over their meager benefits. But their events have a calcified feel to them: shabby coats and cheap polyester suits, 70-year-old slogans shouted out of a tinny megaphone. The automobile lobby, by contrast, defies ideological labels. It is also growing: Russians now own 34.6 million cars, three to four times more than at the end of Communism in 1991, experts estimate.
Yuri Geyko, who covers automotive issues for the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, recalls his deepening awe as he watched thousands gathering to protest the Shcherbinsky verdict. He had helped promote the event, but not until that moment did he recognize the audience he was talking to.
“My biggest shock was that these people were not poor,” said Mr. Geyko. “This was the middle class. These people, they did not go out into the street because they have nothing to eat. They went out into the street because they have a future.”