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