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Analysis & Opinion
04.03.10 Street Justice
By Roland Oliphant

Last Thursday morning a Mercedes carrying LUKoil Vice president Anatoly Barkov collided with a red Citroen C3, killing two respected doctors, 36-year-old Olga Aleksandrina and 72-year-old Vera Sidelnikova, a prominent gynecologist. Barkov himself was hospitalized with a leg injury, while his driver was not seriously hurt. In the days since a vigorous grassroots movement has emerged to challenge the version of the police that Aleksandrina was to blame, vitriolic rap has been released on the subject, and the Echo of Moscow radio station has been accused of censorship.

The official police account of the accident held that the Citroen’s driver, Olga Aleksandrina had caused the accident after pulling into the oncoming lane. But just an hour after the accident callers to a Moscow radio station were claiming that the exact opposite had happened – the Mercedes had moved into Aleksandrina’s lane to overtake a traffic jam.

Now a fierce Internet-based campaign, spearheaded by an impromptu protest song recorded by rapper Noize MC, a close friend of Aleksandrina’s sister, is seeking to bring Barkov to justice. “LUKoil says these women were to blame, but there’s no way they could be responsible. There was a traffic jam in the opposite lane and they couldn’t have moved into it even if they had wanted to,” said Noize MC, whose real name is Ivan Alexeev.

“Mercedes S666,” which he says he recorded in a fit of rage “just a couple of hours” after hearing of the accident, has already attracted more than 200,000 hits on Youtube. “I was so angry couldn’t stop myself. I called up a couple of friends, we went into the studio and it was done in a couple of hours. Then I sent it to everyone I know,” he said. And the anger is palpable; the song bluntly portrays Barkov as the devil, a patrician of the road who has no time for the plebs who might get in his way.

Strong stuff, but Alexeev is not alone in his anger. The outrage has spawned a campaign to boycott LUKoil service stations, and a hotline and an E-mail address for witnesses of the accident have been set up. Meanwhile, a brief scandal broke out in the liberal media when Echo of Moscow commentator Artem Troitsky accused the station of banning him from the talk-show “Special Opinion” because he wanted to play Alexeev’s song on air. That prompted speculation that the station, famed as the last bastion of media freedom in the country, had finally succumbed to outside pressure, but both Troitsky and Sergey Buntman, the Echo director he argued with, later told RIA Novosti that things had been blown out of proportion.

Although Alexeev is reluctant to second guess the success of the campaign, speaking only of “hope” that justice would be done, it already seems to have had some impact. The mainstream press has picked up the story, and Barkov himself felt compelled to issue a statement from the hospital yesterday, offering his condolences to the victims’ families and calling for an “independent and fair” investigation of the crash. The Federation of Russian Motorists has released two possible analyses of what happened, both of which show that Barkov’s Mercedes had left its lane, and the families of Aleksandrina and her passenger have vowed legal action against “false witnesses.”
It’s the second Internet-based revolt against the impunity of high-ranking and well-connected drivers in as many weeks. Last week police in Irkutsk were compelled to open a criminal investigation into a fatal traffic accident involving the daughter of a local official, after Internet campaigners circulated CCTV footage of the incident. The video showed Anna Shavenkova, a 28-year-old political consultant to United Russia and the daughter of the head of the regional electoral commission, plowing her car into two pedestrians, killing one and seriously injuring the other. She then casually checked her bumper for damage and made a mobile phone call without giving the prone bodies of the victims a second glance.

Shavenkova was originally treated only as a “witness” to the incident in Irkutsk, and it is such impunity that is fuelling the anger felt by Alexeev. Igor Trunev, the families’ lawyer, said at a press conference Wednesday that he had been unable to obtain CCTV footage of the incident because police had claimed that it had been “erased.” “Without video evidence it will be hard to achieve justice,” he noted.

An angry Web

The role of the Internet in fermenting this campaign has led some to assign it special significance. But despite the significant role the Internet has played in the recent protests, it is still only accessible to less than a quarter of the population (by the end of 2008 penetration was just 21 percent).

The involvement of Noize MC, Troitsky wrote in his blog on Echo of Moscow’s Web site on Tuesday, made it “a remarkable, unprecedented event… no less significant than the 10,000 people who gathered to protest in the center of Kaliningrad” in February, and certainly more important than the small opposition rallies on Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square on January 31.

But Alexeev is not new to protest music. “I have some songs against the political situation in Russia,” he said, citing one in particular in which he responds to the exploitation of musicians by the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, which he compared to “the Hitler Jugend.”

Actually, mundane as it seems, the real dynamic driving successful protests seems to be automotive. Internet campaigns have claimed a string of successes over the past two years, not least involving the gross injustices of motoring law. In 2006 protests organized by a motorists group called Freedom of Choice secured the release of Oleg Shcherbinsky, a railway worker jailed for four years after a Mercedes carrying Altai Region Governor Mikhail Yevdokimov, clipped his car while he was making a perfectly legal left turn and ran into a tree, killing the governor.

And in what Freedom House called “the most successful civic action coordinated with the help of online forums and blogs,” Freedom of Choice also rallied opposition to government attempts to ban the import of right-hand drive cars from Japan.

The 10,000 strong protest in Kaliningrad, easily the largest anti-government rally in years, was similarly prompted largely by hikes in transport tax and clampdowns on imported cars (these ones left hand drive, and mostly from Germany).

While the campaign to clear Aleksandrina and convict Barkov gathers steam, the plot keeps thickening. Trunev has cast doubt on LUKoil’s account that the driver, and not Barkov himself, was behind the wheel at the time of the crash. Polit.ru reported that on Tuesday evening the LUKoil press service and the radio station Russian News Service had managed to find a witness, identified only as “Andrei” who backed up the police claim that the Citroen was to blame. Meanwhile, on Thursday Evening RIA Novosti reported that the policeman heading the investigation had been subjected to intimidating phone calls and fax messages from “unknown” persons.

And what of that song? “I don’t think LUKoil is going to do anything about it right now,” said Alexeev, “but I’ve probably made about one or two serious enemies.”
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