The Russian Parliament recently made a rare legislative reversal -- withdrawing a tax increase on cars just days after approving the tax.
Lawmakers passed legislation on November 13 to double the country's transportation tax. Five days later, they changed their minds, following what Speaker Boris Gryzlov says were consultations with regional leaders and civic organizations.
Such talks should have come beforehand says Alexander Kotov, the head of Russia's Professional Drivers' Union. But lawmakers ignored his request for a meeting and also a threat to close Moscow's heavily used Outer Ring Road. Union drivers carried out the threat on the day of the vote.
"Nobody invited me anywhere to discuss the matter with the powers-that-be so they could at least ask, 'What do you guys want? What do you need in this country?' We in this country need to work peacefully. We want to pay taxes, but only those we can afford to pay," Kotov said.
A big increase in the number of new drivers in Russia has led to traffic jams in major cities. Oleg Datskiv, director of the Internet car publication Autodealer.ru, tells VOA cars are status symbols for many drivers. "Cars [in Russia] have always been the prerogative of either the very wealthy or those close to power. But times have changed," he said. "We now have a market and are building a democratic society. But the automobile, as before, remains not so much a form of transportation, but a way to display one's level of prosperity."
Datskiv notes that the powerful in Russia do not experience the frustrations of traffic jams. Ordinary citizens often get stuck in traffic along eight-lane Kutuzovsky Prospect in Moscow. But ministers and senior officials speed past in lanes reserved for them, and the entire road is routinely closed for the prime minister or president. Such closures force not only drivers to wait, but businesses waiting for a delivery or a child anxious for a parent to come home in the evening.
Datskiv sees the attempt to double the transportation tax as a sneaky way to reduce the number of cars in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. He says people want more and better roads, not special privileges for government officials. "If they needed to travel in cars without escorts to areas beyond the city to their relatives or friends out of town, then they would more likely think about the quality of roads," he asserted.
In January, a government plan to raise tariffs on imported cars led to street protests in the Russian Far East, where most of the cars are right-hand drive imports from Japan. Among the protesters was Galina Vostrikova.
"We decided to come here in order to express our opposition to the increase in tariffs on imported cars, as well as in what's happening in our country, and the fact that it's becoming a police state," she stated.
Drivers union chairman Alexander Kotov says cars give Russians a growing sense of entitlement. Increased mobility, he says, is not only generating demand for more and better roads, but for liberty as well.
"Roads offer an opportunity for an exchange of opinion. Drivers who travel around the country, who stop to pick up a load or to refuel, talk with one another. They discuss what is happening in any given region. They observe; they see Russia's condition," Kotov said. "This creates a thirst for freedom."
Kotov says drivers also see the villas, fancy cars and yachts owned by elites suspected of corruption. They also wonder if taxes aren't being used by the powers-that-be to enrich themselves instead of improving roads throughout Russia. Kotov and Datskiv say better roads would take pressure off the cities and allow the entire country to develop - rich and poor alike.