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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Annals of Road Rage: Revolution in Russia is Still Possible!

The Guardian reports that there remains a glimmer of hope for an Orange revolution in Russia against the crazed KGB cartel of the Kremlin:

If there is one topic on which Muscovites all agree, it is the appalling traffic. Fifteen years ago, in the days of the Soviet Union when there were only a few cars on the roads, the traffic was fluid. But driving in Moscow these days is a nightmare, a source of endless problems for the city council, police and football fans. On October 31 the congestion was almost certainly to blame when Spartak Moscow lost (0-1) against Inter Milan. Caught in a jam they had to take the metro to the stadium, arriving in a tizz and late for the warm-up.

The latest scheme to solve the problem is a system to coordinate traffic lights. The mayor, Yury Luzhkov, is talking about yet another ring road. "More sticking plaster on a wooden leg," grumbles Valentin, who supplements his pension driving a mini-cab, wasting hours every day in the jams.

"There are more and more cars, with 3m on the road now, and there simply isn't enough room. Moscow is getting too small," he says. Valentin recalls the Soviet era when ordinary people had to wait five years to buy a car. True to form they turned it into a joke. Valentin particularly likes one story. "A man ordering a new car asks whether, five years hence, it will be delivered in the morning or afternoon. The bemused sales representative asks: 'Why?' 'Well I need to know,' he replies, 'because I've already got a morning appointment with the plumber, in five years . . . '"

These days there are plenty of cars to choose from. In 2005 alone sales of foreign cars doubled in Russia. At present three-quarters of the cars on the road are Japanese, German, Korean or American. Realising the potential of this huge market, Ford, Renault-Nissan and General Motors have started manufacturing in Russia, and Toyota is about to follow suit.

Russians are very brand-conscious, eager to show off their place in the pecking order. Mercedes, Volvos and BMWs are a common sight. Any self-respecting official or business executive must have at least one large Mercedes, with bodyguards and smoked glass (even if it is now prohibited). SUVs are highly prized too, in particular Hummers, the armour-plated, all-terrain vehicle used by the US army.

Middle-class buyers prefer less pretentious Japanese or Korean makes. And at the budget end of the scale there are still Zhiguli, small Soviet-era vehicles such as the one Valentin drives. Frequently "hooted at and insulted" by luxury saloons, he readily acknowledges that he cannot compete with the Mercedes and SUVs: "I pull over as soon as I see them coming."

The latest hobby for those with powerful cars is burning through the city centre at 160km/h. There are no visible speed limits, and few comply with signs for one-way streets, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. As a result about 100 people are killed on Russia's roads every day, an annual death toll of 35,000. These figures are beginning to worry the authorities. With 12 accidents per 10,000 cars on the road, Russia has the world's worst road accident record.

An understanding of the highway code is optional for those who can afford a counterfeit licence ($360). Once behind the wheel, road hogs who would rather not be bothered by the gaishniki (traffic police) can purchase "AAA" number plates, originally restricted to top officials, for about $200,000 on the black market. Impatient motorists may also spend $25,000 on a migalka, the flashing light sported by official vehicles. Ordinary drivers detest the things, as they are obliged to get out of the way as soon as they see the light in their mirror. But the Free Choice Motorists' Movement has started challenging this throwback to the Soviet era.

"More and more people are getting a migalka. It is dividing society into two categories, those who may do as they like, and everyone else. The members of our movement will not accept this inequality," says the head of the organisation, Vyacheslav Lysakov, 50. The movement started just over a year ago. It originally coalesced in response to an official decree banning right-hand drive cars. Such vehicles, purchased second-hand from Japan or Korea, mostly belong to members of the emerging middle classes (20% of the population), the constituency Lysakov claims to represent.

Incensed by government plans, he and his friends launched a website, adopted their own colours (an orange and black ribbon), and recruited volunteers across the country. Mobile phones and text messages did the rest. On May 19 tens of thousands of drivers turned out, with their cars, all over Russia. In the capital a stream of angry cars surrounded the government headquarters, hooting for hours. A few days later the government dropped its plans. But the movement's greatest victory was the release of a Siberian railway worker, Oleg Shcherbinsky, imprisoned for his part in an accident involving the regional governor, Mikhail Evdokimov, in August 2005. The governor's Mercedes was travelling at 200 km/h, far too fast to avoid Shcherbinsky's Toyota. The Mercedes braked, skidded and crashed into a tree, killing all three occupants.

The police arrested Shcherbinsky, who explained he had not seen the limo soon enough. In February he was sentenced to four years in prison for "failing to give way". Lysakov's movement came to his defence, organising demonstrations all over the country. "Today it's Shcherbinsky, tomorrow it will be you," read the car stickers. In March the courts overturned the sentence.

"It's a victory for civil society," says Lysakov, adding: "Without our movement Shcherbinsky would still be behind bars . . . The Russian people no longer sees itself as a grey mass. It knows it can have its say."

He adds carefully: "There is no one behind us. Just the word 'politics' would be enough to put off most of our supporters."

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