Russia tariff protest grows into broad discontent

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia -- 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 the tariff appear to be broadening into an expression of public discontent.

"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 help 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 popular among Russians, particularly throughout the Far East, where private cars imported from nearby Japan outnumber vehicles built in Russia.

Hundreds rallied in the city Saturday for the second weekend in a row, and demonstrators had 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 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.

In Moscow, about 200 protesters wore yellow ribbons on their jackets and held placards decrying the tariffs, the government and the rise in consumer prices.

"At the same time we're registering general discontent with the policies of this government," said Yulia Marova, a 28-year-old Moscow resident.

The Kremlin has sidelined political opponents and put tight controls on civil society and the media, rolling back many

post-Soviet freedoms.

But in recent weeks, migrant workers in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg protested wage arrears and pensioners in the Siberian town of Barnaul took to the streets to protest the withdrawal of discounted fares on public transport.

Domestic and foreign car companies' announcements of production cutbacks in Russia and warnings of potential layoffs have added to the Kremlin worries. The industry employs more than 1.5 million workers nationwide.

While auto industry workers have applauded the tariff increase, Russian consumers and others involved in the $30.5 billion car import business have not. Many Russians say they have a right to buy what they want without paying to support the Russian auto industry.

Associated Press writers Mike Eckel and Paul Sonne contributed to this report from Moscow