Riot police have beaten and detained dozens of people who gathered for a holiday celebration in Russia‘s largest Pacific port.
The incident in Vladivostok comes one day after hundreds rallied to protest a government decision to increase car import tariffs.
Police detains participants of a protest against the authorities’ plans to raise tariffs on imported used Japanese cars in central part of the Pacific port of Vladivostok, about 6,400 km (4,000 miles) east of Moscow, Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008. Some 500 motorists rallied in Russia’s far east Saturday to protest the government’s decision to raise car import tariffs, and thousands others are expected to stage similar demonstrations across Russia Sunday. Photo: AP
By LIYA KHABAROVA, Associated Press Writer
Riot police clubbed, kicked and detained dozens in the Pacific port of Vladivostok on Sunday in a harsh crackdown on a protest that was one of dozens across Russia by people outraged over an increase in car import tariffs.
With unemployment spiking, prices rising and the ruble sliding, the protests over a seemingly mundane tariff appear to be broadening into a wide expression of public discontent — and beginning to present a genuine challenge to the Kremlin.
“The Russian people have started to open their eyes to what’s happening in this country,” said Andrei Ivanov, a 30-year-old manager who joined about 200 people at a rally in Moscow. “The current regime is not acting on behalf of the welfare of the people, but against the welfare of the people.”
The government announced the tariffs on imported automobiles earlier this month to bolster flagging domestic car production and try to head off layoffs or labor unrest among the country’s more than 1.5 million car industry workers.
But imported used cars are highly popular among Russians, particularly throughout the Far East, where private cars imported from nearby Japan vastly outnumber vehicles built in Russia. Protests against the tariffs, which are scheduled to go into effect next month, have been most vehement in Russia’s largest Pacific port — Vladivostok.
Hundreds rallied in the city Saturday for the second weekend in a row, and demonstrators hoped to rally again Sunday. But authorities refused to authorize the demonstration and hundreds of riot police blocked off the city square where it was planned.
Soon after, several hundred people gathered on Vladivostok’s main square — not the planned site of the demonstration. Waiting riot police ordered them to disperse, saying the gathering was illegal. The group refused and began singing and dancing around a traditional Russian New Year’s tree on the square.
Police — some shipped in from Moscow, 9,300 kilometers (5,750 miles) to the west — began hauling men and women into waiting vans as people chanted “Fascists!” and “Shame! Shame!”
An Associated Press reporter saw police beat several people with truncheons, throw them to the ground and kick them. Several parents were detained as their children watched.
“Riot police encircled the group … even those just passing by, and they started taking people away without any sort of comment,” said Olga Nikolaevna, a 62-year-old retiree who witnessed the incident.
An AP reporter saw at least 10 journalists detained by police, who demanded that several journalists turn over videotapes and photo memory chips. Police wrecked a Japanese TV crew’s video camera, and some journalists were beaten and kicked, including an AP photographer.
Vladimir Litvinov, who heads a local rights group, said police behaved “like beasts” and had no right to break up the gathering, since it wasn’t overtly political.
“We support a civilized resolution to all the problems but when they send Moscow riot police to break up a gathering in our city, and they start breaking arms and legs and heads…,” he told AP. “People are very, very angry. It’s hard to predict what might happen now.”
Regional police officials said they were forbidden from saying how many people had been arrested. Protest organizers and witnesses counted more than 100.
Protests over the car tariffs, which take effect next month, were held in more than a dozen cities, with motorists driving in long columns with flags waving. National TV channels, which are state-controlled, ignored the demonstrations.
Police on Sunday thwarted a second attempt to hold protests.
Later, riot police broke up a gathering of around 500 people who were singing and dancing around a decorated holiday tree on a central square. Dozens of men and women, including some journalists, were arrested, some beaten with truncheons.
More rallies are set for Sunday in what are expected to be the largest anti-government demonstrations in years.