A Tale of Cars And Power in `New' Russia

The more things change, the more they stay the same: letter from Moscow

THIS is a tale about how decisions are made, and unmade, in Russia today. It is also about how much has changed, and how much has not, in this vast land.

Our story begins far from the august capital of Moscow, some 5,750 miles across the steppes and forests to the Pacific seaport of Vladivostok, home of the once-mighty Pacific Fleet of the Soviet Navy and base for the Far Eastern arm of the merchant marine.

On the streets of that hilly port town, the boxy Zhigulis and clunky Volgas are left in the dust by Toyota sedans and Nissan station wagons. The Japanese imports are brought in by the seamen and fishermen of the Russian Far East, who buy cheap used cars in the port cities of Japan on their visits there. Indeed, the cars with their steering wheels on the right side are so common that Vladivostok residents joke that it is time for them to switch to driving on the left side of the road.

Tens of thousands of the cheap Japanese cars can be found all over Russia's Far East.

And three years ago, when the military lifted restrictions that had kept Vladivostok a closed city even to most Soviet citizens, the cars became a lucrative business for the seamen. The mercantile peoples of the former Soviet empire - Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, Balts, and others - filled Vladivostok hotels on car-buying jaunts. A Japanese-car mafia grew quickly.

In this era of chaotic change and earnest reform, all this commerce passed unhindered.

That is, until early last month, when, as has been done since the days of the czars, or decree, was issued from behind Kremlin walls. Without warning, much less discussion, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin banned the registration of all right-hand-drive cars after July 1 and completely banned their use after Jan. 1, 1995. The terse announcement from the official Tass news agency referred only vaguely to "traffic safety" concerns emanating from the Interior Ministry as a reason for this measure.

Mr. Chernomyrdin is a man of the old school. He became prime minister last December when conservatives in the Russian parliament ousted economic reform architect Yegor Gaidar. He is used to the good old days when a decree was enough to make the bureaucrats down the line jump, for fear of ending up in some Siberian diamond mine. But, as the bluff Soviet-era bureaucrat was to quickly understand, times have changed in Russia. Within a few days, on Feb. 5, the seamen and fishermen angrily threatened to strik e if the government did not cancel the ban on the main source of their livelihood.

"While most Russians live in misery, the government sees no other problems on which to concentrate," came an angry message from the freighter Botsman Mashkov to the local trade union committee. Regional governments and parliaments joined the protest wave. On Feb. 14, the authorities on Kamchatka Peninsula issued an appeal to Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian parliament. The ban is an infringement of their rights, the Kamchatkans declared, and if the decree were not rescinded, they would app eal to the Russian Constitutional Court.

Several days later, Chernomyrdin conceded that "I banned right-wheel cars in too much haste." On Feb. 20, the now-chastened prime minister found himself at a gathering with the leaders of the Federation of Russian Independent Trade Unions. He chose that site to promise to "remove the ban," though, in a typical half-measure, only in the Far Eastern region.

THAT day, Komsomolskaya Pravda, the country's largest-circulation daily, devoted a large front-page article to an examination of what it termed, in a satirical play on a famous tract by Vladimir Lenin, "the infantile left disorder in automobilism." Seeking the source of the government's latest blunder, the newspaper speculated that the auto mafia of the Far Eastern fleet had intruded on the interests of their comrades in the Black Sea and Baltic Sea fleets, who specialize in bringing in used German BMWs and Mercedes. These cars are many times more expensive than the Japanese cars and have steering wheels on the left side. Then there are the captains of the Russian auto industry, whom Komsomolskaya Pravda reports are "openly complaining" about the unusual experience of facing competition.

Meanwhile the wise seamen of the Far East know better than to be calmed by mere promises from Moscow. On Feb. 25 they gathered for a rally in Vladivostok's central square to demand a formal repeal of the ill-fated automobile decree. They also called for an investigation to find out who was behind this "illegal" decision. Similar rallies took place at shipping lines, fishing cooperatives, and ports around the Far East.

Komsomolskaya Pravda suggested that the seamen may have to wait for more than a new ukase. "All these campaigns - campaigns against crime, campaigns against right-side steering wheels, against pornographic newspapers - trigger the same thought," the paper said. "Most of our previous governments started behaving like this, committing sheer stupidities, just before they fell."

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