MOSCOW, March 7, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- From Moscow to Vladivostok, an estimated 125,000 demonstrators rallied over the weekend in over 360 cities and towns.
Angry protesters marched through cities, blocked roads, and massed outside government buildings to protest hikes in utility prices that went into effect at the start of this year.
Under the sweeping housing reform, residents will gradually be made to pay for the total cost of utilities, which are still now partly subsidized by the state. Another housing law coming into effect next year would also allow authorities to evict residents who fail to pay utility bills.
Ordinary Russians are starting to take their fate into their own hands because they feel increasingly alienated from both the authorities and the major political parties.
In the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk -- where utility costs have risen by up to 40 percent since the beginning of the year -- protesters on March 4 demanded the resignation of President Vladimir Putin and his government.
Russian protesters, particularly pensioners, say their incomes are barely enough to cover the rising cost of utilities. They also accuse the authorities of backpeddling on their pledge not to raise tariffs by more than 20 percent annually. In 2005, utility costs increased by 32.7 percent nationwide, and in January 2006 alone, they rose by up to 40 percent in some regions.
Initially, such protests called mainly for the abolition of the housing reform. But the authorities' consistent indifference in the face of repeated rallies seems to be fostering growing calls for political change.
What is significant about these protests is the fact that many of them are no longer organized by political parties, but by citizens themselves.
Carine Clement, a French woman who runs the Moscow-based Institute for Collective Action, an organization founded two years ago to help coordinate grassroots civil rights groups. The organization operates on a voluntary basis and relies on small grants and donations from private individuals.
Clement says ordinary Russians are starting to take their fate into their own hands because they feel increasingly alienated from both the authorities and the major political parties: "In order to run for office,you need either to have a registered party, to meet thousands of conditions, or to be accepted by the president to enter the Public Chamber or the human rights council under the president. It is all controlled and closed for spontaneous and independent initiatives from below. This is why there are good chances that all these grassroots movements will develop into a rather tough opposition to the authorities."
The institute created the Union of Coordination Councils, a coalition of small civil groups born out of the protest over monetization of benefits last year. This group now focuses on fighting the housing reform.
Antifascist protesters in Moscow (RFE/RL)
But the institute also collaborates with a wide range of groups, from pensioners to anarchists, students, teachers, trade unions, and private residents.
Along with pensioners, students have been among the most active protesters over the past year.
The Putin government has angered students by replacing most social benefits with cash payments. And, starting this year, many more students will have to pay tuition fees for education.
Students have used the Internet to coordinate their protests. In 2005, Aleksandr Korsunov, a 23-year-old economics graduate, founded an independent Internet-based opposition movement called "Say No." The campaign urges young Russians to defend their rights and works closely with a range of other youth organizations.
Korsunov says the organization's website aims to fill the information gap left by state-run media: "The authorities are limiting access to information, and as a result voters are turning into zombies. We think that people need to be given the whole picture in order to make the right choice. We tell people what is happening and try to persuade them to take action and get out there and support initiatives, for example the terrible state of affairs in our army because of hazings. We hope that the current political line will change, because we already have an authoritarian model."
Civil protest has also come from unexpected quarters. On February 12, thousands of outraged motorists rallied in 22 Russian cities to protest the jailing of Oleg Shcherbinsky, a railway worker who was sentenced to four years in a labor colony in February for failing to make way for a speeding Mercedes carrying the Altai region's governor. After hitting Shcherbinsky's car from behind, the Mercedes crashed into a tree, instantly killing the governor, his bodyguard, and his driver.
The protesters denounced the impunity enjoyed by government cars, which they say jump traffic lights, drive into oncoming traffic, and break the speed limit, while ordinary citizens are subject to constant harassment from traffic police, who routinely demand bribes.
The rally was organized by Freedom of Choice, a motorists' lobby group. Its coordinator, Vyacheslav Lysakov, says the group defends the interests of what he describes as the "backbone of society" -- people between 25 and 50 years old who have a car, a cellular telephone, and Internet access.
But the ultimate aim of Freedom of Choice, he says, is a bottom-up consolidation of civil society: "In nine months, we have achieved quite a lot. We have attracted the attention of society, of the power vertical, of the media. We have raised questions that concern many millions of people. The effect is not so much in the concrete results that we have achieved, as in the fact that we have forced people to display their civic activity, believe in their strength, and understand that some things depend on them. The social aim of our movement is the formation of civil society."
Many grassroots protest groups do not expect Russia to have its own version of the Orange Revolution, which toppled the Kremlin-friendly government in Ukraine in 2004.
But grassroots civil activists such as Clement, Korsunov, and Lysakov say they are confident that civil protest movements have the power to influence policymaking and generate major changes, provided they are able to form a united and coordinated front against the authorities.