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It's Bolotnaya, But Not As We Know It

Unlike previous protests on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square, this weekend's demonstration is expected to be a more modest affair. (file photo)
MOSCOW -- They're gearing up to march on Moscow's Bolotnaya Square.

Two years ago, protesters rallied there against electoral fraud in the wake of the disputed December 2011 State Duma elections. In May 2012, they clashed with police on the eve of President Vladimir Putin's inauguration.

And, on February 8, demonstrators will again mass on the site that has become hallowed ground for the protest movement. But this time they won't be calling for fair elections, Russia without Putin, or freedom for political prisoners.

No, this time they'll be rallying iPads.

The government is considering imposing a 30 percent import tax on foreign goods worth over 150 euros purchased online. Currently that tax is only levied on goods over 1,000 euros.

Russians have become avid online shoppers in recent years, using foreign retailers like Amazon regularly, and the proposed new tax would hit consumers hard.

"I buy a lot of things from abroad," says Dmitry Lebedev, a 24-year-old Moscow resident who will participate in this weekend's protest. "We have really big problems in Russia. Because of customs legislation, the markup on electronics is about 50 to 60 percent. If you get it delivered from the States or from China, you can order electronics for about thirty percent cheaper than the market price in Russia. It's obviously profitable for me."

Moreover, due to excessive paperwork and persistently long delays at customs, couriers like DHL and Federal Express on January 27 suspended deliveries from foreign retailers to private individuals in Russia. And legislation designed to combat terrorism working its way through the State Duma would make it significantly more difficult to make online payments.

"It's an important issue. It affects the interests of millions of households in Russia," says Mikhail Anshakov, the chairman of the Society for Consumer Rights and one of the protest's organizers. "We have roughly 2-3 million families that are active Internet shoppers, which adds up to 8 million people. They actively use transborder trade and they buy from foreign Internet firms. What's more, this segment is growing by about 30 percent a year. It's a driver of growth. And now it's going to be curtailed."

Russia is indeed one of the fastest growing e-commerce markets in the world.

From 2009 to 2012, Internet users shot up from 29 percent of the 143 million population to over 53 percent. In 2013, penetration hit 59 percent according to some estimates.

Foreign firms like eBay last year launched Russian language websites, hoping to challenge Russian Internet retailers like Ozon.

Wider Resonance

This week, DHL and Federal Express said they had reached an agreement with the Russian Customs Service to relax customs regulations in the near future, although the details are still unclear.

According to Anshakov, this illustrates the importance of public actions like this weekend's demonstration.

"This is partly the result of social pressure and the resonance it has had in society and the mass media," he says. "This is a positive example that social pressure can somehow influence decision makers. With the demonstration [on February 8], we want to signal our sharp disagreement with these initiatives."

The manifesto for the demonstration, published on Facebook, calls for the resignation of Russia's Finance Minister, the head of the Federal Customs Service, and the entire management of the Russian Post Office. The Post Office came under fire last year for, among other things, its less-than-delicate handling of parcels.

Protest organizers have also compiled a "black list" of online retailers whom they want boycotted for allegedly "lobbying" for the new tax on foreign-bought goods.

Anshakov says he expects thousands of demonstrators to brave subzero temperatures on February 8, although social networking sites suggest turnout may be more modest.

As of February 7, slightly fewer than 1,000 had promised to attend on Facebook, with another 700 indicating that they might attend. The VKontakte social networking site also listed the event with approximately 700 set to attend.

It's a far cry from the tens of thousands who came out for past protests on Bolotnaya.

But Lebedev suggests that this protest has more in common with past demonstrations about weightier issues than one might imagine.

"In general, the idea of all these meetings was to somehow develop in people a sense that they can battle for their rights," he says. "I don't want to be banal, but we don't have this sense yet and I believe we need to demonstrate it.”