Car duty protests challenge Russia's Putin

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia Tue Dec 16, 2008 10:11am EST

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia Dec 16 (Reuters) - Rising protests in Russia's Far East against higher import duties on used cars may be the first visible public anger at one of the government's responses to the global financial crisis.

Thousands gathered in Russia's largest Pacific port of Vladivostok on Sunday, some brandished posters critical of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and others chanted for him to resign, witnesses said.

News coverage of the protests was limited mainly to the Russian internet and some newspapers because the main state-controlled television channels did not report them.

The duty is being raised to discourage Russian consumers from buying second-hand car imports and to prop up the struggling domestic motor industry, largely based around the Volga region cities like Togliatti, home of the Lada.

Large-scale protests in Russia are rare, with rallies by opposition political groups usually attracting no more than a few hundred people. But at least 3,000 gathered on Sunday, in a region where Japanese used car imports are popular.

"This kind of reaction to the suggested (car) measures could be predicted, but the scope and determination of the local people is linked to the crisis," Moscow Carnegie Centre political analyst, Masha Lipman, said.

Police clad in riot gear detained some protesters as other demonstrators blocked roads, lit flares and bonfires in Sunday's protests that blocked traffic in the city centre. A separate protest later blockaded the city's airport for a short period.

"Eighty five percent of local people are reliant on this business, take a look at us, we are not millionaires," said one protester, who only gave his first name, Sergei.

"Everything here has been bought by Muscovites. We only hear about Moscow, Moscow, Moscow," said another, implying far-flung regions were neglected in favour of the capital.

The crowd chanted: "Putin, resign!" and there were several banners that were critical of the prime minister. "Mr Putin you are carried in a Mercedes, not a Volga, are you not a patriot?" one banner asked.

Another banner called for Vladivostok, acquired by Russia from China in the mid-19th century, to be given to Japan.

ANOTHER PROTEST PROMISED

Some protesters promised another protest for Dec. 21. Others say a precise date for the next action has not yet been finalised but vow to continue the demonstrations to pressure the government to drop the tariff plans.

As car producers and importers supported Putin in elections, the prime minister and ex-president faces a challenge placating conflicting interests, political analyst Sergei Dorenko said.

"I think it's the first large-scale confrontation against Putin since the Yukos era," said Dorenko, referring to the Kremlin's dismantlement of the oil company once headed by Mikhail Khordokovsky, now in jail.

"Russia is a large country so by helping one part of the country, Putin has hurt another part. This is being supported by the middle-classes, which the government has said it wants to help in the current climate," Dorenko said, referring to the higher duties on imported cars.

Finding a solution will be difficult and Putin will not back down, he said, but instead might offer some alternative concessions to the region, said Dorenko.

The local regional legislature also responded on Monday to the protests, in an unusual act of defiance to Moscow and urged a moratorium on the duties, due to take effect next month.

There was no immediate comment on the issue from Putin's press office. (Writing by Conor Sweeney in Moscow; Editing by Peter Millership)

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