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Russian Activist Takes Less Traveled Road In Fight For Civil Rights

  • Claire Bigg

Vyacheslav Lysakov: "Why shout under the window when you can enter through the door?"

Vyacheslav Lysakov: "Why shout under the window when you can enter through the door?"

Vyacheslav Lysakov is a busy man. He regularly visits the State Duma for consultations, holds meetings with government officials, authors newspaper columns, and runs a lively website. Then there are the almost daily media interviews and the Sunday show he hosts on a Moscow radio station.

There's just one thing the 56-year-old activist has no time for: street protests. "Protests take a whole month to prepare. You need to create a special website and distribute information on forums. They represent enormous organizational work, energy, resources, and right now they are very ineffective," he says.

Instead, Lysakov says there's a better way to fight for civil rights -- by taking your complaints directly to the authorities.

At a time when Russia is being swept by a tide of rallies, including a series of protests on March 20 to denounce worsening living standards and rampant corruption, it's a somewhat unorthodox stance. It's also a surprising sentiment coming from a man like Lysakov, who up until recently was a prominent street agitator with a colorful past and a dozen mass protests under his belt.

Lysakov has alternately worked as a diamond cutter, a medical attendant in Moscow's ambulance service, a sailor on a Russian cargo ship based along the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Far East, and a masseur for the Dynamo Moscow soccer team. But it was his final career switch -- to car repairman -- that led him to activism.

'This Offended Me'

For Lysakov, life changed on May 14, 2005, the day he found out Russian authorities were planning to ban imported Japanese vehicles in a bid to bolster the country's flagging car industry. Officials argued such vehicles, most of which are imported directly from Japan to the Far East and have a right-hand steering wheel, posed a safety risk. Lysakov, a passionate admirer of Japanese cars, saw red.

"This offended me as an owner," Lysakov says. "This offended me as a person whose property was about to be confiscated and on whom others were trying to impose their criteria, their ideas."

Lysakov criticizes the current wave of protests in Russia -- "such cacophony" -- as lacking a clear focus.
The outraged repairman set out to organize a mass protest through Internet blogs and chat rooms. Five days later, he was spearheading a nationwide uprising during which thousands of furious motorists took to the streets in 44 Russian cities, blocking roads and massing outside government buildings, car horns blaring.

Stunned authorities quickly dropped their plans.

Lysakov has since relentlessly fought government abuse both on and off the roads. His advocacy group, Freedom of Choice, has outgrown its initial goal to defend motorists' rights; it is now an active grassroots movement promoting a bottom-up consolidation of civil society. One of its most high-profile campaigns was 2006 rallies to protest the jailing of Oleg Shcherbinsky, a railway worker sentenced to four years in prison after being unfairly accused of causing a road accident that killed the governor of the Altai region. The rallies were instrumental in helping Shcherbinsky win his appeal and walk free.

Freedom of Choice's trademark road protests also persuaded the authorities to curb the use of special license plates and flashing sirens, known in Russian as "migalki," which vast number of government employees had been placing on their cars to evade traffic rules -- enraging ordinary drivers and sometimes causing high-speed crashes in the process.

'No Clear Aim'

Despite this impressive track record, the group has been noticeably absent from the protest frenzy that has gripped Russia in recent months. It will also stay away from the much-awaited countrywide rally this weekend to denounce low pay, surging costs, and corrupt officials.

"Our own rallies had one or two slogans. Our actions were focused and targeted a concrete issue," Lysakov says. "The problem with the latest wave of protests is that organizers and participants put forward many slogans, dozens of appeals on economic and political issues. No one takes such cacophony seriously because there is no clear aim."

A sceen grab from a YouTube video shows the aftermath of the LUKoil crash.
He says Freedom of Choice has been achieving much better results since abandoning street rallies a year ago in favor of intense lobbying with deputies, police, and government officials. "Why shout under the window when you can enter through the door? We are able to voice our demands and proposals at all levels of the power vertical," he says.

The group, for instance, has successfully blocked the introduction of a new import tax on children's car seats. Lysakov says he and his colleagues also played an instrumental role in persuading officials to open criminal probes into two recent road incidents that shocked the country.

In the first incident, an armored Mercedes carrying a vice president of LUKoil was involved in a Moscow car crash that left two women dead. In the second, Russia's famously corrupt traffic police allegedly used civilian motorists as a "human shield" to stop suspected criminals.

Lysakov, who carefully avoids any political affiliation, insists that working with authorities doesn't affect his integrity as activist. "United Russia uses me as a kind of brand. They need me as a representative of civil society, and I need them as a source of administrative resources, thanks to which I can achieve concrete results," Lysakov says. "I think some compromises are acceptable as long as you don't betray your own principles."

Not Always Smooth Sailing

In this respect, Lysakov regards Freedom of Choice as a pioneer. He says that while human rights "titans" such as Memorial or the Moscow Helsinki Group have long been lobbying in parliament and government, his group is the first nonprofessional grassroots movement to opt for this strategy. He says a number of small advocacy groups have since followed suit, many with his help.

Lysakov has organized a boycott of LUKoil petrol pumps.
But Lysakov is well aware that his achievements hinge largely on the fact that the Kremlin is significantly more accommodating on bread-and-butter issues than on more sensitive political topics.

His own dialogue with the authorities is not always smooth. A court recently rejected his lawsuit against the Interior Ministry over a new regulation that bars traffic police from arresting prosecutors, investigators, and judges caught driving drunk. He is determined to bring the case before the European Court of Human Rights if Russia's Supreme Court turns down his appeal.

Freedom of Choice also reserves the right to stage off-street protests. It has vowed to boycott all LUKoil gasoline pumps across the country, for example, if the firm's vice president is not found guilty in last month's fatal car crash.

Russia's deep-running public apathy, combined with a government largely unwilling to change its ways, means activists face an uphill battle to improve the lives of ordinary Russians. But Lysakov says that's no reason to give up the fight. He firmly believes that disgruntled citizens stand a good chance of improving their lot if they follow his example and take their battle to the corridors of power.

"There's a story about two frogs trapped in a jug of milk. One immediately gives up and drowns. The other kicks for a long time until butter forms, then climbs onto the lump of butter and clambers to freedom," Lysakov says. "One must always fight and always hope for the best. If you only wait and criticize, you're simply burying this hope."
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​