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Russian Protesters Don Their Own 'Blue Lights'

Russian lawmakers are considering a bill that would make it harder to organize a rally using vehicles in Moscow. The news comes after a growing number of rallies against special privileges for official cars and a wave of public anger at officials, some of whom often ignore driving rules.

In recent weeks, hundreds of Muscovites have been strapping blue buckets to the roofs of their cars to mock the flashing blue lights that allow senior bureaucrats to drive into oncoming traffic and break the rules that everyone else has to obey.

Sergei Kanayev is the head of the all-Russia Federation of car owners, and one of the leaders of the protests.

"It all started in 2000 in Kemerovo region, when my friend and his 8-year-old daughter died in a car crash," he explained. "The policeman who ran into them was not only drunk, but had gone through a red light and had no siren on. I was driving right behind them and saw the whole thing. That was when we decided to seek justice."

In Moscow, the campaign has been fueled partly by an incident in February, when the Mercedes of the vice president of the oil company LUKoil, carrying a blue light, collided with a Citroen. Two women were killed in the Citroen, one of whom was a well-known gynecologist. Authorities initially blamed the women, but witnesses and the family said the LUKoil car was to blame.

Following that accident, a Moscow businessman, Andrei Hartley, refused to move for a black BMW carrying an aide to President Dmitri Medvedev. He posted a video on the Internet that showed him approaching the BMW and the aide's arrogant reaction.

Masha Lipman is an analyst with Moscow's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"There's some change in the mood," said Lipman. "I wouldn't say this is radical. Actually, automobile drivers have been a rather cohesive force in Russia, and this is not the first time this is happening. Previously, however, they tended to protest against what they saw as an infringement on their socio-economic rights. This time round, this is a direct challenge to what they see as unfairness, as injustice and inequality."

The Russian lower house of parliament is now considering legislation that would require protesters using automobiles to inform the authorities about their planned actions three working days in advance. Under the current regulations, protests using cars don't count as "public gatherings" and their participants can only be detained for traffic violations.

"The Kremlin are very aware of the risk that this might theoretically evolve as something bigger so they try to pre-empt, try to prevent, such kind of undesired evolution before it begins to happen," added Lipman.

The Blue Buckets Society has reacted to the lawmakers' initiative by organizing a march around the city, with blue pails and plastic cups attached to their heads. Moscow police detained several protesters, but they are not the ones who should be arrested, says car owners federation head Sergei Kanayev.

"These people with blue lights are above the law," added Kanayev. "They are not ready to follow it. And people who write laws are also above the law. We have to make everyone respect it, and this rally against the blue lights is exactly about that."

Most federal lawmakers lost their right to a blue light in 2006 after an outburst of public anger at their privileges. Now, theoretically, only the speakers and deputy speakers of the two houses of parliament may use the lights officially, but there are still dozens of cars on the Moscow roads that continue to exploit the advantages of a blue light on the roof.