Protests against Putin rock Russia

From Vladivostok to St Petersburg, Russians are taking to the streets in anger over job losses, unpaid wages and controls on imported cars.

Russia’s Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, is facing the most sustained and serious grassroots protests against his leadership for almost a decade, with protests that began in the far east now spreading rapidly across provincial Russia.

Over the past five months car drivers in the towns of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, on Russia’s Pacific coast, have staged a series of largely unreported rallies, following a Kremlin decision in December to raise import duties on secondhand Japanese cars. The sale and servicing of Japanese vehicles is a major business, and Putin’s diktat has unleashed a wave of protests.

Import law

Putin’s new import law was designed to boost Russia’s struggling car industry, which has been severely battered by the global economic crisis. It doesn’t appear to have worked. In the meantime, factories in other parts of Russia have gone bust, leading to rising unemployment, plummeting living standards and a 9.5 per cent slump in Russia’s GDP in the first quarter of this year.

An uprising that began in Vladivostok is now spreading to European Russia. Last Tuesday, some 500 people in the small town of Pikalyovo blocked the federal highway to St Petersburg, after their local cement factory shut down, leaving 2,500 people out of work. Two other plants in the town have also closed.

The protesters have demanded their unpaid salaries, and have barracked the mayor, telling him they have no money to buy food. They have refused to pay utility bills, prompting the authorities to turn off their hot water. Demonstrators then took to the streets, shouting: “Work, work.”

Across Russia, Putin is facing the most significant civic unrest since he became president in 2000. Over the past decade ordinary Russians have been content to put up with less freedom in return for greater prosperity. Now, however, the social contract of the Putin era is unravelling, and disgruntled Russians are taking to the streets, as they did in the 1990s.

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