Russia will begin car assembly this year in its far east in a bid to wean the local market off foreign imports, deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov announced on Thursday.

“An agreement has been reached about the creation of a car assembly plant in (the far eastern region of) Primorye,” he said on a visit to Vladivostok.

“The first stage of this project will be launched at the end of 2009,” he said, according to Russian news agencies.

The government last year announced a controversial rise in the tariffs on imported cars, a move that provoked protests in Vladivostok where consumers have long preferred models from neighbouring Japan and Korea. Many of these are used cars, and right hand drive Japanese-specification models are a common sight.

Prime minister Vladimir Putin has sought to protect the Russian car industry which has been hit hard as consumers tighten their belts amid the economic slowdown.

Deputy industry minister Andrei Dementyev said an agreement on launching car assembly in Primorye had already been made between the authorities and Russian auto firm Sollers.

“By 2012 full auto assembly production will be created,” he said. Sollers owns factories which produce brands including the Russian UAZ off-road vehicle as well as Fiat and Isuzu vehicles.

He said production would start with buses, minibuses, off-road vehicles and heavy goods vehicles.

The government has been criticised by analysts for promoting the transport of vehicles made in European Russia across several time zones to the far east to protect the domestic auto industry from foreign imports, news agency AFP noted.