[Marxism] Russian Truckers, Irate Over New Tolls, Block Roads Near Moscow

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Dec 5 06:57:37 MST 2015


NY Times, Dec. 5 2015
Russian Truckers, Irate Over New Tolls, Block Roads Near Moscow
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR

MOSCOW — Hundreds of long-distance truckers blocked a lengthy section of 
the ring road circling the capital on Friday to protest a new national 
toll, in the first sign that Russia’s economic woes might be eroding the 
broad support for President Vladimir V. Putin’s government.

The direct object of their ire was Igor Rotenberg, the scion of a 
billionaire oligarch clan close to Mr. Putin, who owns half of a new, 
GPS-based system that, when fully operational, will charge truckers fees 
on all federal highways.

Their larger anger, however, was reserved for what they called the 
government’s failure to alleviate the devastating effects of inflation 
and recession over the past year, prompted by the steep drop in oil 
prices, sanctions the West imposed over Ukraine and retaliatory 
sanctions the Kremlin imposed on Western food imports.

“There is no economic program at all — where is all the money?” said 
Vladimir Romanov, 65, the part-owner of a small Moscow trucking firm 
with three 18-wheelers. “The country is very rich, yet we live like hell.”

The Russian economy is deeply troubled and shows few signs of escaping 
from its rut, at least as long as prices for oil and other commodities 
remain depressed. Inflation is running at 15.6 percent and the economy 
has shrunk nearly 4 percent in the last year. The ruble has lost about 
half its value against the dollar, and foreign reserves were hovering 
around $366 billion, compared with $419 billion a year ago.

While that should mean hard times for everyone, some analysts say 
something else is at work. Given the shrinking oil revenue and the 
economy, they say, the Russian elite is seeking new revenue streams even 
at the expense of the middle class.

“At a time when the pie is shrinking, the clans are trying to keep their 
portion or even expand it,” said Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow’s 
Higher School of Economics. The privatized toll system creates a new 
income source, he noted, but it will cause friction.

The truckers are widely dispersed and hence difficult to control, and 
their sentiments reflect those of the entire middle class, Mr. Petrov 
said. “They feel that the government is trying to fix budgetary problems 
by increasing taxes and taking money out of their pockets,” he said.

Under the new system, drivers must buy a tracking device and pay 
according to their mileage. An 800-mile round trip between Moscow and 
St. Petersburg costs an extra $33 at current exchange rates and will 
rise to $66 next March.

Truckers said that the new toll amounted to about 10 percent of their 
revenue for each trip, and that it came on top of other hefty 
transportation taxes, sharply reducing their monthly wages of around 
$500 to $600.

The government argues that the trucks cause significant road wear and 
says the tolls will generate more than $700 million a year to pay for 
maintenance. “This is how a transportation system functions worldwide,” 
Maxim Y. Sokolov, the transportation minister, told state television 
this week.

Truckers mocked the idea that the toll money would end up being invested 
in Russia’s notoriously poor roads.

“They have already increased taxes on fuel and promised to cancel the 
transportation tax, but they have only increased it,” said Vladimir 
Deryugin, 51, whose truck sat among roughly 20 lined up in an Ikea 
parking lot in Khimki, a small city on the northern edge of Moscow. A 
few bore signs saying “No to Platon!” — the Russian acronym for the 
system. Police cars had blocked all entrances and exits to the lot.

The demonstrations-on-wheels are the closest thing to large-scale 
political protests that Russia has seen since the professional classes 
took to the streets of Moscow in 2011 and 2012 to oppose the way Mr. 
Putin returned to the presidency for a third term. That movement was 
centered in the narrow world of the Moscow and St. Petersburg 
intelligentsia.

The truck drivers are the kind of bedrock Russians for whom Mr. Putin 
has long been a hero. And even as they railed about the new tolls and 
the economy, they retained a certain reluctance to criticize the man 
himself.

“Our president was duped,” Mr. Romanov said. “He signed without 
thinking. His friends duped him. The son studied in Britain, then he 
came back. He needs to earn money. So Rotenberg comes to the president 
and tells him: let the son earn money.”

The new toll system is operational only in the Moscow region for now, 
but since that is such a national hub it has already elicited protests 
across the country, including in the Dagestan republic, in the cities of 
Vologda, Nizhny Novgorod, Bryansk, in Smolensk in eastern Russia, in 
Yekaterinburg in the central Urals, and in St. Petersburg.

One trucker from distant Vladivostok commented on social media that he 
wanted to join the demonstrations but that the roads were so bad it 
would take him 12 days to make the cross-country trip.

Some analysts consider the protests proof that what is widely called the 
“television” — government propaganda about Russia’s rising status in the 
world — is losing its edge over the “fridge,” or economic problems.

“The reserves are not limitless,” said Alexander Auzan, the economics 
dean at Moscow State University, speaking on Dozhd television. “What we 
see now, the situation with the truckers, is the first rumble of thunder 
somewhere far away.”

The government evidently hopes to ride out the protests, which went 
unreported on the main state-run television news channel.

The police were the first line of defense, establishing checkpoints on 
the outer reaches of the capital to block access to the MKAD, the major 
ring road circling the city. If that becomes paralyzed, traffic backs up 
all across Moscow.

The police tried a number of strategies to thwart the protesters. They 
declared some drivers drunk, truckers said, allowing them to suspend 
their licenses for 24 hours. Sometimes the police “discovered” a 
mechanical problem making the vehicle unfit to drive. Some drivers were 
forced to sign pledges that they would not join any protest. Eventually 
the police settled for corralling the trucks into one six-mile section 
of the road and diverting other traffic.

The city of Moscow announced on Friday that it would have to limit 
traffic the city center in December to prepare for the Victory Day 
parade — which is held in May. The state Duma, or Parliament, has tried 
to mollify the protesters, lowering the fines for noncompliance and 
limiting the penalty to one fine per day.

The Putin administration itself repeatedly offered dialogue and 
compromise in the form of graduated tariffs, but the truckers are 
demanding the tolls be scrapped entirely. Mr. Putin himself has not 
commented publicly on the protests.

His spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told reporters that it was not a 
presidential matter but an issue for the ministry of transportation.

Truckers like Mr. Romanov said that support for Mr. Putin — whose 
approval ratings have been above 80 percent ever since he annexed Crimea 
in March 2014 — has dropped universally among drivers forced to pay the 
new tax. There has been some online chatter and some public discussion 
about whether the anger was enough to spark a Maidan, the protests in 
central Kiev that brought down the government of neighboring Ukraine in 
early 2014.

Mr. Romanov said that the drivers had no such thing in mind, and that 
they only wanted to earn a living.

“We don’t need a Maidan here, we don’t need any extremism,” he said. “We 
are normal people without political demands. We just don’t want the 
government to get into our pockets.”

Some of those watching had other ideas. All across Moscow, the movement 
of the trucks circling the city was being monitored on various social 
media, inspiring a lively stream of criticism and support.

“Why only the ring road?” said one, “Why not Red Square?”

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.



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