Saturday, May 22, 2010

Russia’s Blue Light Specials

Drivers in Moscow planned a series of public demonstrations today, including a traffic-blocking slow-speed caravan, all to protest the official misuse of flashing blue car-top lights. In theory, the blue lights are only to be used by high-ranking officials on working state business, with drivers yielding the road to them like they would to an ambulance or fire truck; in practice though, legions of bureaucrats (and in some cases VIP businessmen) use the lights simply to ignore driving laws and plow through traffic jams – sometimes with disastrous results. In February, two women in Moscow were killed when their car was struck by a speeding – and blue-light festooned – Mercedes carrying a vice-president from the energy company LUKoil; as in other fatal crashes involving blue-light cars (which date back to 2000 and have occurred across Russia), the women were initially blamed for the accident, despite witness accounts that the Mercedes was actually at fault.

Saturday’s protest was the latest in several weeks of public actions around the capital regarding the misuse of official signal lights. Hundreds of Muscovites have been driving around recently with blue buckets taped to their cars, mimicking the official blue lights. When Moscow authorities threatened to detain drivers with faux blue lights, some people took to wearing blue buckets on their heads while walking around the city.

Protests by car owners are nothing new in Russia, while officials tend to clamp down quickly on political protests, groups of car owners have managed to stage effective rallies during the past few years on topics including not only the abuse of blue lights but also high import taxes on used automobiles and the poor condition of Russian roads. Drivers in the city of Irkutsk protested the lack of street maintenance last month by using their cars to spell out “No Roads in Irkutsk” (pictured below) in a display they said would be visible from space.

Drivers in Saturday’s rally were also planning to use their cars to spell out “NO” at the end of their slow-speed caravan. Protests by car owners are among the most successful in Russia because they are usually broad-based. Unlike the occasional rallies against the Putin/Medvedev government in Moscow that tend to attract the same collection of political fringe groups and reform-minded liberal elites, the driver’s rallies cut across the strata of Russian society – attracting the rich and poor, the working class and students. Last month writer Julia Ioffe speculated in Foreign Policy magazine on whether these protests could form the basis for a truly nationwide campaign to reform Russia’s political system. It is an interesting idea, though some of the organizers involved in the driver’s protest movement said one reason the rallies have been effective is that they usually organize around a single, narrow issue and don’t require a deep commitment on the part of the participants.
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