Languages
Page last updated at 12:57 GMT, Monday, 29 December 2008

Moscow Diary: Hitting the brakes

A crackdown on protesting motorists reveals how the car is intimately linked to Russia's economic fortunes, the BBC's James Rodgers reports.

His diary is published fortnightly.

DRIVEN TO PROTEST

A protest by motorists in Vladivostok was broken up by riot police
A protest by motorists in Vladivostok was broken up by riot police
Never mind the oil price, just look at the traffic jams.

Last year, and the year before, the streets of the Russian capital were choked in the last two weeks of December.

Muscovites scanned the car number plates knowingly, and moaned about the number of people from outside town who had come in to do their New Year shopping.

This year, there is more traffic than usual - but it feels like much less than the last couple of years.

There must be a fascinating academic study to be done on the history of Russia in the last 20 years, and how it has been affected by the oil price.

The Soviet Union might have lasted longer; Boris Yeltsin might have ended his presidency with some of his earlier popularity still intact; the boom of the Putin presidency might not have been quite so spectacular.

The private car stands at the centre of those last two decades of history: from the legendarily long waiting lists of Communist times to the hundreds of thousands of first-time owners who have come after.

As in many other parts of the world, car ownership is a sign of increasing wealth.

Here in Russia, though, it has become something else too.

Russian motorists have been one of the few groups willing to indulge in prohibited public protest here in the last few years. They have complained about corrupt traffic cops, railed against rising petrol prices.

Now they're driving the demonstrations against the Russian government's response to the financial crisis. Car owners in Vladivostok have rallied against a new tax which will increase the duty on imported cars. They're so far east, so far away from Russia's main manufacturers, that - questions of quality aside - it's simply easier for them to get cars from Japan or Korea.

Prime Minister Putin drove a Mercedes in Sochi in February
Prime Minister Putin drove a Mercedes in Sochi in February

The motorists aren't natural revolutionaries but, at a time when the Kremlin seems to be nervous about the prospect of wider protests, theirs is an example the authorities don't want others to follow. Unemployment is growing here. That's likely to continue.

People who have lost their jobs may feel they have little to lose by taking to the streets in a way that few have done in recent years.

Riot police - reportedly flown in from other parts of the country - put an end to the demonstration in Vladivostok. The protesters' example did not go unnoticed.

Moskovsky Komsomolets - one of Russia's leading popular newspapers - cheekily pulled out a quote from a recent speech by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He was explaining how he felt it was wrong to buy imported cars while Russia's manufacturers were forced to cut production. Moskovsky Komsomolets duly reported his words, next to a picture of him at the wheel of… a large, expensive, foreign car.

It's hard to imagine that the motorists will persuade the government to cancel the duty. But their actions may encourage others - so these demonstrations are worth watching. Next time the streets of a big Russian city are clogged with cars, the traffic jam may not be a sign of increasing prosperity, but a "go-slow" protest.

CAUCASIAN CHEESE CIRCLE

My local supermarket has just started selling fresh khachapuri, a kind of hot bread with cheese and other fillings. It's a traditional dish from the Caucasus, a staple of Georgian restaurants. But while the delicatessen sells a variety of different kinds from different regions of the Caucasus, it manages to advertise them without mentioning the word Georgian. Perhaps, given the current state of relations, the shop feels it might leave too bitter a taste in their customers' mouths.


Your comments:

About the khachapuri - no offence, but only a foreigner would make such a comment. All Russians know that khachapuri is a Georgian food. In fact, advertising it as Georgian on the menu would make most people chuckle and say: "as opposed to what, all that french khachapuri we've been having?" Since the days of the USSR we've grown very accustomed to foods from other ex-Soviet Republics and everyone knows where they come from! Ksenia, Moscow

The way our government is trying to protect domestic manufacturers is quite standard. What's more, it is generally approved by the majority. But they should have tackled this problem more sensibly. Raise the tax for what in return? All they do is applying excessive force and subduing peaceful rallies. All this can lead to increasing separatist tendencies in the region. Alex Perminov, Moscow

The last comment about the khachapuri bread is a bit silly: everyone in Russia knows that khachapuri is Georgian. Here in New York no one, for example, attaches the word French to Brie cheese or points out that the lavash bread is Middle Eastern. Maybe, Mr. Rodgers himself should be a bit more thoughtful before making insinuating suggestions. Alex, New York

There is another side - there are such jams in Moscow because the government officials are not caught in them. These jams need not be. There are no express bus lanes, no one takes buses, there are no express lanes for cars with more than one passenger. Essentially the government only cares about its own power and not the welfare of its citizens. Constance Blackwell, London

Russia doesn't have billions to spend on domestic car manufacturing but has the ample police force to make people buy a domestic car. No leaders from democratic countries use Russian cars. So Putin follows their example and drives a Mercedes. Sergey, New York

Print Sponsor


JAMES RODGERS IN MOSCOW

James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow


MAY - OCT 2008
 

SEPT 2007 - APRIL 2008
 

FEBRUARY - AUGUST 2007
 

IN DEPTH



FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific