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Analysis & Opinion
02.06.10 A Bucket Of Fury
By Roland Oliphant

It's been one of the great public phenomena of 2010. In March this year Muscovites appeared to have finally had enough of the high-ranking officials' use of “migalki” – flashing blue lights that allow drivers to ignore ordinary traffic rules. Protestors have begun to tape blue buckets to their own cars, drive slowly, and film genuine “migalki” users. Soon activists wearing blue buckets on their heads took things a step further. But is this strategy of voicing public outrage more likely to backfire?

Anger had been building for months. In February, a Mercedes with a siren carrying LUKoil Vice President Anatoly Barkov moved into the opposite lane and collided with an oncoming car, killing two women and prompting the popular Russian rapper Noize MC to release a protest song, “Mercedes S-666,” comparing drivers with “special numbers and special signals” to Satan. Then at the beginning of April a driver refused to give way to siren-carrying Kremlin Advisor Vladimir Shevchenko when his car swerved into his lane to beat a traffic jam. The driver, businessman Andrei Khartly, filmed the incident on his mobile phone and posted the footage on YouTube, creating a mini-sensation. A week after that incident the Union of Car Owners started encouraging people to honk their horns whenever they saw a car with a blue flashing light.

There are many reasons to resent drivers with flashing blue lights. By turning on the siren they are able to drive against the traffic and break other rules of the road, while other drivers are obliged to concede to them under the threat of a 300 ruble ($10) fine. “Migalki” cars are often used to bypass Moscow's ubiquitous traffic jams, a misery which ordinary drivers must tolerate without complaint. And they are also dangerous – the latest accident occurred on May 18, when a car with a flashing blue light trying to make what for anyone else would be an illegal turn on Moscow's Pushkin square, collided with an oncoming car.

But most offensive of all is the division between blue light drivers and everyone else. So it is ironic that it was an editor at Snob, oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov's openly elitist magazine and Internet project aimed at the social and intellectual creme de la creme, who came up with the symbol that defined today’s counter movement against the “migalki.” “It turns out there's a man who has been driving around with a blue bucket on his car for about five years,” said Masha Gessen, the chief editor of the Snob Web site. “One of our editors found a video of him being detained by traffic police and collapsed with laughter. And she suggested we popularize it.”

Thus the Blue Bucket Society was born. Members of the informal group, organized originally through Web sites and blogs such as Snob, taped blue buckets to their cars in imitation of the despised sirens, and gathered for an impromptu protest driving around Moscow's Garden Ring. “This could be the beginning of a new mass movement. It's stronger than white ribbons,” wrote Snob blogger Sergei Parkhomenko. Drivers wore white ribbons to show support for Oleg Shcherbinsky, who was involved in a car accident with the governor of the Altai Region in 2005. “I can envisage thousands and thousands of members of the Blue Bucket Society leaving for work in the morning. And unfortunate, frightened blue lamp holders sneaking into this stream to the hoots and whistles of their neighbors.”

Parkhomenko's enthusiasm was prescient. Although the first convoy on April 18 involved about 30 cars and ended with at least one driver being stripped of his license by unimpressed traffic police (despite the fact that according to organizers, there is no law banning buckets on car roofs and no official reason for drivers with blue buckets to be pulled over), the buckets struck a nerve and the movement soon became a fad. The convoys were followed by “flash mobs” of protestors – this time on foot – wearing blue buckets, plastic cups and even washing up bowls outside the White House, the seat of the Russian government. Soon the idea had moved beyond Snob and taken on a life of its own, with autonomous groups and individuals staging their own stunts. An opposition activist involved in an unrelated group called “War” became a YouTube sensation last week when he ran across traffic with a blue bucket on his head to jump on the roof of a blue-lighted car waiting for traffic lights to change.

The young man turned out to be Leonid Nikolaev, an activist from the Solidarity political movement. The authorities caught up with him earlier this week, and he is now being investigated for hooliganism.

Nikolaev's case is interesting because he was acting on his own. He's not part of the Society of Blue Buckets, and the Moscow branch of Solidarity – which has no formal ties with the blue buckets – says he was not acting on its behalf either. “Leonid was acting as part of a group called ‘War,’” said Sergei Davidis, a spokesman for Solidarity.

This is final proof that the blue bucket phenomenon has moved beyond the control of the original organizers. Nikolaev has been called a “provocateur” by the Society of Blue Buckets. “Even if this was done in good faith, it obstructs other road users. The Society of Blue Buckets does not obstruct the road or disturb people,” wrote an administrator on the society's Web site after photographs of Nikolaev's stunt appeared on the Internet. “We only learned about this today, and consider this person a provocateur who discredits our movement. We ask everyone who supports our movement not to be like this person, and not to violate traffic rules. It is not our way.”

“It's already moved beyond our control, but thank God for that – we didn't want to control it,” said Boris Akimov, the creative director at Snob and an active participant in the movement. “It's obviously taken on a much wider meaning than simply protesting against people with blue lights on their cars.”

Indeed, the blue bucket seems to have become as much a symbol of civic activism as a means to remind the authorities about the road users’ rights. At the latest “Strategy 31” protest in defense of freedom of assembly, many protestors were wearing blue plastic containers of one sort or another. One man even brandished a blue watering can emblazoned with the number 31, the ultimate symbol of the cross fertilization of the movements. “We have no formal organizational links, but lots of our members are taking part and supporting the blue buckets,” said Davidis of Solidarity. “It's popular because the sirens are a real problem that lots of people, especially in Moscow, are fed up with.”

“It's about rights,” said Akimov. "It's not really about ‘migalki.’ The police need them, so do ambulances. It’s about people who have decided that they have the right to break the rules."

But although he is hopeful that the campaign can change things, progress so far has been slow. Lawmakers’ first response was not to crack down on the abuse of sirens, but to introduce a new bill into the State Duma that would oblige protestors in cars to inform the authorities in advance of their actions.
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