Putin moves to pare protests with blue light promise

By bne IntelliNews February 8, 2012

bne -

Russia's authorities continued their campaign to dampen support for recent protests, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promising on February 7 that he will slash the number of officials given the right to use a migalka, the blue flashing lights which adorn masses of black-windowed Mercedes and allows them to flout traffic rules on Moscow's gridlocked streets.

Over the last couple of years, the blue lights have become a symbol of the privilege and immunity of officials to abuse the population and the country's laws. In fact, until late 2011, which saw large nationalist demonstrations take place some months ahead of the first major rally against election fraud in December, practically the only grass roots protest to gather any momentum in the last five years or more has been that sparked by the blue lights.

The anger against them led to the "blue bucket" protests, in which drivers fixed clearly fake migalka on their cars, and also took to filming and posting online evidence of law-breaking behaviour by official cars. Some even filmed themselves attacking migalka-carrying vehicles. In short, the protests against the blue lights were seen as an incubator of middle-class protest in Russia.

Therefore, Putin's promise, as quoted by Interfax, that "If citizens trust me and the [presidential] vote finishes as I hope, we will be able to reduce the amount of these flashing lights without any problems," is clearly an attempt to drain another pillar of support amongst the hotchpotch of liberal, left-wing and middle-class voters that have continued to rally in recent weeks.

The numbers turning out, although peaceful, have clearly rattled the Kremlin ahead of Putin's assured return to the presidency in a vote on March 4. The current PM and his government have responded by promising a series of economic reforms following the election, in an attempt to lure business and the better-off middle classes back on side.

Slashing the number of officials allowed a blue light from a reported 1,000 or so currently to just a few dozen - as Putin suggested could happen - aims at a wider spectrum of the protestors, leveraging an issue that has provoked huge anger due to a number of high profile accidents involving migalka toting cars over the past couple of years.

It's a striking contrast to the response of the authorities just a year or so ago. In concrete terms, the blue bucket protests achieved little apart from a few million You Tube hits and a crack down from the authorities on protests featuring vehicles. "If Putin wanted a real change, he could just cancel all privileges given to vehicles with flashing lights," Sergei Kanayev, head of the Russian Motorist Union told The Moscow News. "It would take him about 10 minutes."

As bne suggested recently, "[Putin] doesn't need to convince everyone that he has turned over a new leaf; rather his strategy is to whittle away at the opposition."

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