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Anti-Putin, But Pro-What?

The meaning of the protests in Russia.

President Dmitry Medvedev’s inauguration in Moscow last May took place amid the kind of red-and-gold, purely Slavic opulence rarely glimpsed outside of the Russian Tea Room. Except one detail. Russia’s leaders have long had a soft spot for Mercedes--Brezhnev drove one--so it was no surprise that Medvedev arrived to his party in a stretch Benz limo flanked by two burly G500s. Few spectators, however, would have imagined that, a mere seven months later, that choice of ride would help fuel Russia’s first real wave of civil protest.

With the international financial crisis hitting Russia in all the usual ways (frozen lending, falling ruble), it’s no surprise that, by December, the ailing domestic auto industry needed its own bailout. Moscow’s prescription was characteristically artless: force the people to buy domestic by making the imports more expensive. On December 5, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin unveiled a proposal to raise customs tariffs on used foreign cars--which would bump their prices up between ten and 20 percent. By contrast, a buyer willing to forgo that Toyota and get into, say, a Lada Kalina, would get a subsidized loan.

The intensity of the public response would have taken aback any observer used to the notion of a docile and apathetic Russian populace. (Having written a New Republic feature last April about the country entitled “The Hibernation,” I am in that category myself.) The furor started in Vladivostok--the Far East port whose citizens overwhelmingly drive imports from nearby Japan, and whose economy pivots on car transport and sales. On December 14, several thousand organized protesters took to the streets in opposition to the new tariff. After the unrest had failed to subside by December 21, Moscow sent a detachment of OMON--riot police--to the area to do their thing, i.e. disperse the crowds and beat up a few reporters. Not a single state-controlled TV network carried the news. (A picture of four OMON men holding a protester aloft, however, made immediate Web rounds with a LOLcat-style caption: “Buy Domestic, Bitch”).

The next day, spontaneous protests erupted all over Russia. The leaders’ penchant for German engineering made for an especially salient yelling point. In Khabarovsk, an auto club took up a collection to buy an old Zhiguli sedan, inscribed it “A Gift to Putin from the People of Khabarovsk,” and parked it in front of the ruling United Russia party’s headquarters. By December 22, the westward wave reached the capital, where the FSB questioned and released a driver whose sedan bore the banner “Putin, Buy Your Shit Yourself.” In Yekaterinburg, the slogans were far less whimsical: “EdRo--v vedro, Putina--v otstavku”: “United Russia--into the [trash] bin, Putin--into retirement.”

The instant rev-up from a local grievance to nationwide calls for the leader’s head has a cathartic momentum all its own--and little to do with cars. If nothing else, the last few weeks suggest that the same millions who unquestioningly credit Putin with their prosperity will just as easily blame him for any pinch. (That, in a nutshell, is the operational risk for any autocracy). The government force trotted out in response--at one Moscow rally, the OMON, at 1,200 men, outnumbered the protesters--also betrays a far more profound unease than the issue warrants. Taken together, the action and the reaction suggest an unspoken mutual understanding that, with oil prices down and the economy tanking, the rules of the game are beginning to change.

The most striking example of that shift comes from within the cogs of the system itself. Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs maintains a forum on its website that functions as a cops’ hangout--heavily moderated, of course. Late on Friday, December 19, once the moderators had left for the weekend, a poster started a thread named “We are the Attack Dogs of the Regime”: “Dear colleagues,” it began. “On whom do the powerful rely? Us. Who can save them from the people’s wrath? Who can help them hold on to their loot? Us. Russian militia. We will disperse the protesters like we have in May and October of 1993 ... So, for everything that happened to our Motherland from 1993 on, the fault is partly ours.” The thread soon ballooned to thousands of responses. “The government are cocksuckers, and our minister is no exception,” read one. “I, for one, will never shoot at my own people. Not for a kopeck, not for a million.” Another proposed subtle sabotage: “Every order can be obeyed or ‘obeyed.’ Get it? For now, I’m not putting my ass on the line. Better wait for a clearer picture, so as not to make the wrong choice.” At the time of this writing, it might shock you to find out, the forum was closed for technical repairs.

Let’s not idealize the anti-tariff protests, though. These are not harbingers of a Georgia- or Ukraine-style “color revolution.” Note the invocation of October 1993 above: the crowd our cop-with-a-conscience regrets dispersing cheered an attempted hardline coup against Boris Yeltsin’s government. The outrage, in other words, is not coming from the discredited and scattered liberal opposition. It’s coming from disaffected workers whose memories (and, in the younger set, fantasies) of the Soviet Union grow progressively rosier over time, and whose hatred of the “thieves” at the top easily interfuses with distaste for the West and the Jews. Indeed, writes Marat Guelman, a political consultant who helped reelect Yeltsin against Communist Gennady Zyuganov in 1996, “if Zyuganov is not [spearheading the protests] in Vladivostok, the Communists might as well dissolve the party. This is exactly the kind of thing they exist for.” Were things to come to a head, Russia’s choice would, once again, be between a palatable autocrat and something ill-defined but scarier.

More importantly, modern Russia simply lacks the mechanisms for any non-catastrophic grassroots change. Regional governors, who might have pushed back a few years ago, are now appointed by the Kremlin; they have no base to answer to. Parliament delegates have been replaced with United Russia’s party-slate pod people, installed anonymously and in bulk. Russian trade unions are powerless. There is, however, OMON, and lots of it. Immediately after the protests in Vladivostok, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has scrapped the plan to downsize its National Guard-like Internal Troops from 200,000 to 140,000 next year: Amidst the economic turmoil, the first industry to receive a shot in the arm was the riot-quashing one.

And yet, if there is one sentiment that tends to rouse the Russians from apathy, it’s the righteous rage of someone forced to drive a Lada while the boss drives a Benz. And even though the new tariffs will go into effect on January 12 as announced, there’s a twinge of satisfaction in laying into the horn and making the Benz driver look over his shoulder--if only for a second.

Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New York and the editor-in-chief of Russia! magazine, which recently released its winter issue.

By Michael Idov