Jump-Starting Russia’s Protest Movement

Why automobile-policy reform may be the Russian opposition's best hope for change.


Traveling through early 19th-century America, French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville noted, "In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used, or applied to a greater multitude of objects, than in America." If something went amiss, like a traffic jam, Americans would band together into street-level groups and fix it themselves. "If a stoppage occurs in a thoroughfare, and the circulation of vehicles is hindered," de Tocqueville explained, "the neighbors immediately form themselves into a deliberative body; and this extemporaneous assembly gives rise to an executive power, which remedies the inconvenience."

It won’t come as a surprise to hear that Russians are the polar opposite of those early-19th-century Americans. Seventy years of collectivism have, paradoxically, served as a potent atomizer, and a decade of Putinism has only reinforced the tendency. It’s not that protest doesn’t occur or that it’s not useful — more that Russian protest movements tend to be highly specific and localized, with little ambition of existing beyond the lifetime of the small-bore issue at hand. In the best-case scenario, a protest — against a new tariff or a delayed raise in pension, say — gets attention, the authorities back down, and then the organization, having fulfilled its purpose, inevitably dissolves.

Unless there’s a stoppage in the thoroughfare. When it comes to anything automotive, Russians have shown signs of a genuinely Tocquevillian character, and the momentum has been picked up by a young organization called the Federation of Russian Car Owners, or FAR in Russian. The group has only existed since 2006, but its longevity, unique structure, and genuinely grassroots-level organization make it a standout in a civic wasteland. FAR’s leaders, tightly focused on automotive policy, haven’t quite realized their own significance: that their organization model is about the only effective, sustainable way to challenge the Russian government. In a place with zero civil society — but 42 percent car ownership — FAR is as good as it gets.

Like other Russian protest movements, FAR began as unofficial clusters of citizens in small towns across Russia to protest various abuses of their automotive rights. But FAR’s leaders took it further than most of these groups ever did: They began to band together regionally until the Kremlin provided them with a reason to come together on a national level. The catalyst came in May 2005, when the government proposed banning the import of cars with right-side steering wheels (Russia is a left-side country), a move that would have stymied the import of cheap used cars from Japan.

People got mad and picketed, and a year later, the seven most active regional groups came together to form FAR, a loose national umbrella for local automotive rights’ organizations. There are no official members, no membership dues. If you support a particular issue — say, the ban on xenon headlights — you can come to that protest and skip the others. It’s a highly personal model: Sergei Kanaev, head of FAR’s Moscow branch, for instance, joined not out of a sense of civic duty but because his friend was killed in a bad car crash. "They are very good at using network principles," says leftist opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov. "It’s very easy to join up; there are no extraneous formalities."

FAR’s national director Viktor Klepikov says that the organization is entirely self-financed, forgoing politically tinged funds from either the Kremlin or foreign NGOs in favor of small-scale collections to cover printing costs and the like. Everyone works for free, including the leadership, which is elected once a year.

FAR’s discriminating approach to activism has made it surprisingly effective. In a country where a successful protest tops out at half a thousand people, last fall the group collected 84,000 signatures petitioning a proposed spike in import tariffs on cars; the government backed down. (By comparison, after a month and a half of collecting signatures, an Internet petition calling for Putin’s resignation has gathered fewer than 40,000 names.)

In 2006, FAR and another automotive group were also instrumental in lifting the jail sentence of an Altai rail worker falsely accused of causing an accident that killed the region’s governor. The automotive groups effectively showed that the governor’s own chauffeur caused the fatal crash. And remember those January protests in Kaliningrad? They were preceded by December protests over raising a transportation tax. FAR was instrumental in organizing them and, in January, helped communicate Kaliningrad’s concerns to Moscow. But by the time the crowds had gathered for March 20’s so-called "Day of Wrath," FAR was out of the picture: The courts had overturned the transport tax, and the group’s mission was accomplished.

This month, the organization is going after the blue sirens that — legally — allow bureaucrats and businessmen to flagrantly violate the rules of traffic (like which way it’s supposed to be moving) at massive risk to the hoi polloi. (In February, an armored Mercedes carrying a Lukoil vice president — alleged to have served in the KGB — turned on its siren and pulled into the oncoming lane where it mangled a red hatchback, killing a young woman and her mother-in-law. When authorities tried to blame the victims, FAR launched its own investigation and forced the police to investigate, too.) Citizens have responded by taping blue buckets to their car roofs, and the Duma is now looking at a legislative proposal to make siren rules, and penalties, more stringent.

"FAR has been one of the more sustainable groups compared to a lot of others in Russia," says an observer with a Western NGO who did not want to be identified because of the suspicion with which Russian authorities view such groups. He added that FAR’s longevity is doubly impressive in a landscape left bare by the 1990s generation of activists, who, facing an unfriendly terrain and Kremlin pressure, moved on to other pursuits without passing down their institutional knowledge and skills to the next generation.

So if civil society doesn’t exist in Russia, how does FAR get the results it does? Part of the answer lies in the narrowness — and practical concreteness — of its focus. FAR and its various constituents are not going after broad abstract rights like freedom of assembly, or even after additional bread-and-butter issues, such as housing or miserly government pensions. FAR is about the rights of car owners and the rights of car owners only: the right not to have to pay bribes to policemen, the right to keep sticker prices down instead of feeding corrupt customs officials, the right to road safety, and so on. To that end, FAR distributes car decals that warn traffic cops against asking for bribes. It also hands out the number of a hotline to a lawyer in case you get stopped by a bad cop.

These vaguely libertarian, populist demands resonate strongly because they are the only things Russians are guaranteed under the current political arrangement. In the last 10 years, the Kremlin has formed an unspoken agreement with its subjects: We don’t interfere in your daily business if you don’t interfere in ours. And it has worked. A recent poll showed that 62 percent of Russians try to avoid any contact with the government, and 85 percent of those polled think they have zero impact on policy decisions.

On top of that, FAR has found a soil rich in discontent. Russians don’t much want to assemble freely, but they do love their cars. Due largely to the pent-up consumer desires born of the Soviet era’s acute shortages, the car has become the American dream on steroids: part vital lifeline in a sprawling country with bad infrastructure, even bigger part status symbol, as Foreign Policy contributing editor David Hoffman described in his book The Oligarchs. This is also why many of the large protests across Russia in the last three months have been inspired in part by things like import duties that make foreign cars unaffordable (a new car imported into Russia is marked up more than 70 percent) even as domestic brands remain uncompetitive — and undriveable. And the regular trickle of news about officials abusing their blue sirens or policemen using people as a human shield on a road to stop a speeding criminal is particularly disturbing.

Unlike other groups, FAR’s narrow focus has also helped it avoid a government crackdown, the other critical element to its success. TIGR, a similar automotive-rights group in Vladivostok that led the large protests there in the winter of 2008-2009, had some early victories until it made a fatal mistake: It tried to branch out horizontally by including other interest groups, like those concerned with housing and pensions. In a freer system, this would’ve been a prudent move. But in Russia it instantly made the group too powerful, and the Kremlin quickly began sabotaging it. FAR’s lack of overt political calculation also makes it a safer bet for its supporters. "As long as we’re apolitical, people are interested," says Klepikov.

FAR also cuts a clear contrast to the liberal opposition being actively blackmailed in Moscow. The young, urban intellectuals targeted in last month’s smear campaign work in the best traditions of the Russian opposition: vague, disorganized, overeducated, and ineffectual. FAR, on the other hand, is populated by up-by-the-bootstraps characters — Kanaev is a former businessman — who are gruff, ineloquent, and inexperienced at talking to the media (FAR’s website asks supporters to contribute contact information to a database of local and national media outlets). And because it was first organized locally around a bouquet of sensitive, relevant issues, FAR attracts a broad swath of the Russian population: Its website lists more than 80,000 supporters all over the country. A March 20 rally in Moscow attracted up to 1,000 people who looked far less homogeneous than a group of opposition protesters across town. There were old people, young people, rich people, poor people, and middle-class people milling about silently on the rainy embankment. Even the libertarians and the local garbage collectors showed up to vent.

In today’s Russia, FAR’s methods seem to be the ideal way for Russian citizens to lobby their government, says political analyst Sam Greene, who works on issues of civil democracy at the Carnegie Moscow Center. FAR helps Russians address personal concerns that would normally be solved on a personal level, between the complainant and a bureaucrat. "The Russian government doesn’t relate to its citizens on a policy level," Greene says. Instead it bypasses the consultative process and makes impulsive decisions, unless someone pushes back hard enough. And because there is no mechanism for compromise, the system can only back down. So that’s what FAR does: It pushes back on specific, concrete initiatives until the government backs down, as it did in the case of import duties and Japanese imports.

Although FAR represents the civic vibrancy of a pretty effective movement, says Greene, "I wouldn’t hold out hope that it will bring democracy. If you’re hoping for a sea change, you need the kind of horizontal linkages that TIGR was trying to pursue."

But Russia doesn’t do sea change; it does revolutions. So, while we wait for the next one, the FAR model — narrowly focused, local, and severely practical — is probably Russians’ best chance of participating in the way they are governed, or, at least, of clearing up a stoppage in the thoroughfare.

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