By RICHARD BOUDREAUX
MOSCOW—Sergei Kanayev is a motorist provocateur.
He circles the city on the busy Garden Ring road in a 1997 Mitsubishi Delica, leading dozens of drivers in a slow, horn-honking caravan. Their hazard lights blink; their antennas fly yellow ribbons of protest. He barks into a two-way radio, trying to keep his followers in a line as traffic police pull over cars.
Mr. Kanayev, a 42-year-old lawyer and car buff, is a pioneer of protests on wheels. Every few months he leads one against such grievances as high gasoline prices, car-import taxes, bad roads, police who extort bribes and VIPs who plow recklessly through traffic flashing blue lights atop their luxury sedans.
Protests on Wheels
Justin Jin for The Wall Street Journal
Sergei Kanayev stood in front of a van with a fake “blue light” that he uses to protest against the real ones used by officials to bypass heavy Moscow traffic. The fake light is a blue bucket turned upside-down.
* More photos and interactive graphics
“It’s like a war game for us,” he says. “We enjoy every minute.”
The Kremlin has quashed much of Russia’s political and civic opposition, but car-owner groups have clout. By defying ideological labels and avoiding partisan politics, they have mobilized some of the largest demonstrations of the past few years, grabbed the attention of government leaders and often achieved their aims.
Their flags display their true loyalties: Honda, BMW, Mazda, Land Cruiser. Their bumper stickers are only mildly confrontational, as those touting Mr. Kanayev’s latest cause: “Servants of the people. Take off your flashing lights!”
Russians own 33 million cars, up from nearly 13 million when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Clubs and Internet sites for automobile enthusiasts number in the thousands. Cars are the ultimate symbol of middle-class achievement in Russia, hard-earned possessions that owners take pains to defend.
“Car owners come from the most educated and active part of the population, but most are not politically active,” says Yuri Geyko, who has a daily radio program about automotive issues. “They feel stronger about their cars than their political rights.”
An outcry from motorists can penetrate the Kremlin walls. In November, President Dmitry Medvedev blocked a bill that would have doubled taxes on car owners after the Federation of Car Owners, whose Moscow chapter is led by Mr. Kanayev, organized “horns of wrath” caravans in several cities.
Russian VIPs use flashing blue lights atop their cars to speed around traffic jams. But the Russian Car Owners Federation says they are abusing the privilege and endangering the public. WSJ’s Richard Boudreaux reports.
Amid protests over the driving habits of Russia’s elite, Mr. Medvedev last month ordered the interior minister to investigate a car crash involving an oil company executive that killed two women. Police had dropped the case, but Mr. Kanayev’s group located witnesses who blamed the executive’s driver.
Mr. Kanayev was turned into an activist by a fatal accident in Siberia a decade ago. He was running a chain of car-repair shops there when a friend and his daughter were killed in a collision with a police car.
After the officer got a suspended sentence for running a red light, Mr. Kanayev mobilized local car clubs for a noisy caravan to back a court appeal. The officer was sent to jail for two years.
Encouraged by that success, Mr. Kanayev earned a law degree, set up a hot line for motorists and staged more caravans in a dozen cities in his native Kemerovo region, prompting highway improvements.
The experience taught him some lessons about confronting authority in Russia, where public protest is rare: People who might be too timid to gather on foot to air grievances feel empowered behind the wheel. Authorities have limited means to thwart a protest when it resembles ordinary traffic. And when turnout is big, they can’t ignore it.
“The governor got fed up with our protests,” Mr. Kanayev recalls, “but nobody sent riot squads to pull people out of their cars.” Instead, he was invited to join a citizens’ advisory council.By 2005 protest caravans were being deployed successfully by other motorist groups across the country, some drawing tens of thousands of drivers in several cities at once. Eight regional automotive groups joined that year with Mr. Kanayev’s to form the Car Owners Federation. In 2007 Mr. Kanayev moved to Moscow to organize its chapter here.
His step to the national stage brought police surveillance and a mix of pressure and courtship by officials worried that his horn-honking activism might ignite broader unrest. He recalls the swift reaction when a participant on his group’s online forum suggested setting a car on fire in Red Square. Within minutes, Mr. Kanayev was summoned to Criminal Police headquarters. “It was just a joke,” he says he told his interrogators.
1997 Mitsubishi Delica
A Kremlin political operative approached, he says, and promised time on state-run television if he would stop the caravans. Another official, Sergey Shishkarev, who heads parliament’s transport committee, says he has offered to shape some of Mr. Kanayev’s ideas on tax and safety issues into legislation but warned the activist “to work without fanaticism.”
The Kremlin has succeeded in winning over some of these comrades in cars. “Why scream and shout by the window if it is possible to open a door and get in?” asks Vyacheslav Lysakov, who led nationwide car owners’ protests until 2008 but stopped when the ruling United Russia party made him a parliamentary adviser.
Mr. Kanayev sent a list of grievances to the parliament committee last month. But he’s not about to ditch a form of civic combat he clearly relishes.
The recent caravan, on a Saturday afternoon, protests the abuse of flashing lights by VIPs. Police turn out in large numbers, waving batons to halt participants for a variety of pretexts. Some drivers are fined for having dirty license plates. Andrei Kondabarov’s Ford Focus is stopped by a cop claiming to be looking for a stolen car just like his.
“What are they afraid of?” the computer programmer quips. “That we’ll storm the Kremlin?”
Cops film protesters. Protesters film cops. The caravan struggles on.
When a passenger in Mr. Kanayev’s van unbuckles his seatbelt and stands to poke a camera through the sunroof, police converge. They have been watching for such an infraction and stop the protest leader’s car on a bridge over the Moscow River.
“Keep moving,” Mr. Kanayev instructs his followers over the radio. “Don’t worry about me.”