MOSCOW -- It began as an earnest attempt by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to address the issue of road safety in Russia. But it quickly turned into a PR disaster.
In a video blog
posted over the weekend, Medvedev proposed dramatically increasing fines for traffic infractions and criminal penalties for drunk driving.
Sporting a black leather hoodie, Medvedev pulls up in a dark BMW X5 sport utility vehicle (SUV), dramatically exits the vehicle, and looks intently into the camera.
"Practically every week, and often several times, there is news of terrible traffic accidents, including such outrageous ones as people being run down at a bus stop and children dying," Medvedev says.
"Even the sidewalks have become dangerous. City authorities already have to ponder special measures to protect pedestrians in what is their legal zone."
But rather than spark serious public debate about a very real problem in Russia, the video's macho style has been ridiculed and the prime minister's proposals broadly panned.
Speaking to Dozhd TV
, political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko called Medvedev's video address a "disaster" for his image.
"I think the only thing missing from this clip was the music from the [popular 2003 gangster film] 'Bimmer.' At the beginning he drives up in a black BMW X5, the most criminal of cars, in a black leather jacket," Minchenko said.
"If they'd only added the music from 'Bimmer,' then everything image-wise would have been spot on. Instead only this stroke was missing. I think this is simply an image disaster."
About 23,000 people died in traffic accidents in Russia in the first 10 months of this year.
A YouTube user apparently had the same idea and posted a mock video
splicing scenes and theme music from "Bimmer" into Medvedev's clip. The video also includes embarrassing footage of Medvedev dancing and losing control of a parked car.
A commentator for the popular daily "Moskovsky komsomolets
" wrote that Medvedev looked like he was in an advertisement for the latest gleaming BMW SUV -- a German car -- and jokingly dubbed him a "foreign advertising agent."
But it wasn't just the style of Medvedev's appeal that drew barbs. The substance of his proposals was also criticized.
Mikhail Prokhorov, a billionaire tycoon and former presidential candidate, wrote in a strongly worded blog post that the government would be better off first tackling the rundown condition of Russian roads.
He ridiculed Medvedev's proposal of fines up to half a million rubles ($16,000) for traffic infractions such as running a red light. "It would be nice to ask the former president whether he knows what the average salary is in the country he used to run," Prokhorov wrote.
Medvedev later clarified on Twitter
that he only intended the high fines for drunk drivers.
But even that was received coolly. Speaking to the daily "Komsomolskaya pravda," State Duma Deputy Vyacheslav Lysakov called the prime minister's proposals "insufficient."
Lysakov, who has taken up the issue of road safety in the Duma, said he favored a Western-style points system that would punish repeat traffic offenders. He added that Medvedev's proposals on drunk driving lack a clear criterion for measuring intoxication.
When he was president in 2010, Medvedev introduced a zero-blood-alcohol threshold, meaning that drivers with even trace alcohol content are breaking the law.
Cracking Down On Drunk Driving
Currently, the maximum punishment for first-time drunk-driving offenders is the loss of one's driving license for 12-18 months. Repeat offenders can lose their license for three years and be fined 5,000 rubles ($161).
In addition to proposing stiffer fines on drunk drivers, Medvedev has also ordered the government to draft legislation raising the punishment for causing death while driving intoxicated to five to 15 years in prison.
Pyotr Shkumatov, an activist with the motorists' rights group Blue Bucket Brigade, says introducing huge fines without clear criteria for what level of blood-alcohol content constitutes intoxication will lead to widespread corruption. "Many people are already starting to joke about the man who took just two bribes and retired to Monte Carlo," he adds.
Medvedev's video appeared amid rising public outrage over drunk driving. In a highly publicized case in September, a heavily intoxicated Moscow driver lost control of his car and drove into a bus stop, killing seven people, including five teenagers.
According to a poll last month by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM), 63 percent of Russians support tougher legislation against drunk drivers.
Some officials have called for confiscating offenders' vehicles and the famously bombastic nationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky has even said convicted drunk drivers should be branded.
Last month, an activist plastered a fake Health Ministry advertisement
onto a billboard near a highway that read: "We're tired of warnings. Stop [expletive] drunk driving."
In the first 10 months of this year, some 23,000 people have died in traffic accidents in Russia. There were 28,000 fatalities on the country's roads in 2011.