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Dilemma: Could Effort to Help Russian Auto Makers Hurt Other Russian Workers?

On Sunday, Russian riot police in the Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok used force to break up a demonstration against a plan to increase tariffs on imported cars in order to help the country's ailing domestic auto industry. But, Moscow's proposal on behalf of autoworkers could be shifting, rather than solving, the country's economic problems.

Russia's auto industry, like that of many countries, has fallen on hard times. In an effort to help domestic manufacturers, Prime Minister Putin last week imposed steep duties on used right-wheel drive vehicles imported from Japan.

He says the federal government will also offer credit assistance for the purchase of domestic-built cars and will pay the cost of transporting them as far as 7,000 kilometers from factories in western Russia to the Far East.

But the economy of that distant region has also fallen on hard times, and several hundred people demonstrated their displeasure with Mr. Putin's plan Sunday in Vladivostok. About 100 were arrested and some reporters were beaten. Similar demonstrations were also held in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities.

Many residents of Vladivostok fear that subsidized domestic cars will not offset the losses they could suffer from restrictions on their import-export business, which they say is a mainstay of the economy in Russia's Pacific Primorye region.

Vladimir Litvinov, representative of the Russian Car Owner's Federation in Vladivostok,says the Primorye region does not have any industrial firms, agriculture is dilapidated, there is no fish processing industry, ports are working at only 10 to 15 percent of capacity. So according to Litvinov, Primorye survives on the import and export of goods to and from Russia.

Political observers say the force used to disperse the demonstration in Vladivostok could reflect Kremlin fear of potential protests over growing nationwide unemployment and inflation during the global economic downturn. The Kremlin is also seeking to amend Russia's treason law to include not only hostile acts, but any acts deemed to be a threat to the security of the country, including its constitutional order and sovereignty.

Nina Tagankina of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization, told VOA the protesters in Vladivostok not only had every legal right to demonstrate, but also good reason.

Tagankina asks if the workers of Vladivostok will be able to maintain adequate living conditions for themselves and their families, and their very lives. She notes that if worker salaries will be lower than the minimum needed to survive, they will not be able to support their families.

A representative of Russia's AvtoVaz car company declined VOA's request for a telephone interview on the necessity of government support for the auto industry at the apparent expense of Vladivostok's car import business. But Kirill Tachennikov, industrial analyst at the Otkrytia Financial Corporation in Moscow, says the government's decision to support domestic manufacturers boils down to a matter of numbers.

Tachennikov says a choice must be made, either to support those involved in the import of used cars, which in the final analysis does not bring any substantive benefit to the federal budget, or to close domestic car factories that have demand, but whose further existence is now complicated by the economic crisis and need government assistance. The analyst adds that many thousands of people work in the auto industry.

Vladimir Litvinov notes that the import business is the primary source of capital in the Vladivostok area. He says the loss of that source means many people will leave the area or even Russia, and those who remain will not have the means to survive.