Sunday, December 21, 2008

Economy drives protests in Russia

Vladimir Putin's latest idea to boost Russia's economy could be backfiring.

Prime Minister Putin announced on Friday that Russia would slap a 50% tariff on all used foreign-made cars sold in Russia. The idea behind the tariff is that it would increase demand for domestically-build cars, which in turn would keep Russia's car manufacturing plants in business and the one and a half million Russians involved with the industry employed. But used imports are very popular with drivers in Russia (much more so than domestic cars like Volgas), so the move sparked a rash of public protests across the country - a rarity in Russia in recent years.

The biggest protests came in the Far East city of Vladivostok, where more than 500 people turned out for a rally on Saturday against the tariff. Russian-made cars are something of a rarity in Vladivostok, which has a thriving business in importing used autos from Japan (Vladivostok is about 7,000 miles closer to Japan than it is to Moscow). By Sunday, local authorities had enough and used riot police to break up a second day of what had been until then peaceful, and largely non-political, protests. Additional rallies were reported in cities across Siberia, the Ural mountain region and even in Moscow.

Many protestors said that used foreign-build autos were the best option for them as consumers - the general feeling is that Russian companies make poor-quality cars. They also chided leaders, like Putin, for trying to promote the domestic auto industry while driving foreign luxury imports - like Audis and Mercedes - themselves (even the prize for the winner of the recent Miss Constitution pageant was a foreign-made car rather than a Russian-built one).

Meanwhile this could just be the tip of the iceberg for Russia, which depending on the analyst you read is either on the verge of, or now in, a recession. The Russian economy relies heavily on oil prices - which have fallen nearly $100 a barrel in recent months. The government also gets a fair chunk of change on taxes paid on oil sales, so fewer sales means less tax revenue and makes the economic situation even worse. The Russian stock market has also fallen by nearly 70% from its high, ending years of steady growth.

Putin has staked his personal reputation on bringing Russia through the economic crisis, promising that the country will not suffer another economic collapse like they did in 1998. But the car tariff protests could be an indication that the people's patience is running thin and that Putin's sky-high popularity ratings could be at risk.
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