March 30, 2006

White Ribbon Victory

White Ribbon Victory

Gauging the Power of Rallies

Few Russians believe their country's crooked ways can be changed through acts of public protest, but last week's acquittal of Oleg Shcherbinsky, following rallies in 22 Russian cities, may boost their confidence. Since the turbulent 1990s this was one of the rare instances, when Russians trod the streets for an idea, rather than material benefits.

For the past six months, Russians have followed the trial of Oleg Shcherbinsky, a Siberian railroad worker who was charged with manslaughter in a car accident that killed Altai Region Governor and former popular actor Mikhail Yevdokimov, nicknamed the "Schwarzenegger of Siberia."

Shcherbinsky's bad luck brought his second-hand Toyota to the wrong place at a wrong time on August 7, 2005. As Shcherbinsky halted to make a turn into a side street, Yevdokimov's Mercedes suddenly overtook him, moving at breakneck speed (over 124 mph) in the same direction. Trying to overtake the Toyota on the left, the Mercedes raced up from behind, sideswiped Shcherbinsky and flew off the road and into a tree, RIAN reported, killing the governor, his driver and his bodyguard.

On February 3, 2006, Oleg Shcherbinsky was sentenced to four years in prison after the judge in the local court ruled that he had caused the accident by failing to give way to a special vehicle. Technically, Shcherbinsky did not break any of Russia's Traffic Rules.

Russians suddenly rallied to rescue the little man - an innocent bystander made a scapegoat in a high-profile case. Rallies in Shcherbinsky's support rolled across Russian cities, adding to protests against long-hated "special vehicles," which carry Russia's big shots and bully regular drivers. In cities like Moscow, which has a high concentration of the rich and the powerful, the situation is especially bleak, and roads are frequently closed so that limos of the rich and famous can tool by undisturbed.

As part of the Shcherbinsky demonstrations, the Moscow radio station Serebryannyi Dozhd launched a white ribbon drive, urging Moscow drivers to tie a white ribbon on their cars as sign of protest against traffic bullies and their blue-lighted, sirened cars. The station distributed some 13,000 ribbons, and many more drivers simply put their own white ribbons on display. A man even decorated a Barnaul-bound train with white ribbons of protest, bringing his voice to the city where Shcherbinsky was being tried.

Once it became clear which way the wind was blowing, Putin's Edinaya Rossiya party jumped on the bandwagon, giving the sign that vox populi had been heard.

On March 23, 2006, Shcherbinsky was acquitted of all charges by the Barnaul regional court. And the drive against use of symbols of power on Russian roads is catching on. Russia's Duma will soon begin hearings of a law on special symbols and registration signs. Some deputies, according to RIAN, called for canceling all privileges on the roads, while more moderate minds suggested adopting a law on five flashing lights to be used by the president, the prime minister, the speakers of the two houses of parliament and the chairman of the Constitutional Court.

Although much of the support for Shcherbinsky's case came from Russian drivers who feel they could fall victim to the same sort of trouble at any time, in a way it was more a fight for an idea. As such, it stands in contrast to recent rallies, which have been all about claiming material benefits - like January 2005's half-successful civil action. At that time, major Russian cities rose in protest against the new law, which was to replace free medicines, free local transportation and other benefits for pensioneers and under-priviledged Russians with monetary compensation that bought much less. As a result of the protests, some of the benefits were restored.

Currently only 44 percent of Russians believe in solving social problems by holding protest rallies, down 12 points since past July, a recent poll showed, but perhaps this week's events are a sign of things to come...

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