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23 December 2015

Truck drivers – the periphery or the vanguard of protests?

In the course of a month, the authorities have managed to create a new type of non-systemic opposition from the generally loyal electorate: an opposition made up of working Russians who are defending their sectoral interests. 

New dissenters

It may seem to onlookers that the state has successfully “digested” the protests of truck drivers; the “Platon” system of collecting tolls from drivers of heavy vehicles who use federal highways introduced on November 15, 2015 is still in operation. President Vladimir Putin did not even allude to the issue in his address to the Federal Assembly whereas Prime-Minister Dmitry Medvedev referred to trucker protests as “insignificant”. The drivers refrained from entering the capital in their trucks, instead opting to camp in the Moscow suburb of Khimki. The only concession made by the authorities, albeit tactical, is the 90-fold reduction in the fine for non-payment of tolls – reduced from 450,000 to 5,000 rubles. However, it is not the outcome but the process which is important here: the truckers are not inclined to curtail their protests and are currently engaged in local manifestations. They are gradually becoming aware that their demands are, in fact, political and also are coming to understand the importance of civil institutions.

The trucker protests are very different from those of “angry city dwellers”, indignant in the face of the election fraud in the winter of 2011-2012. The drivers gather not in downtown squares but on the outskirts: parking lots, lay-bys or routes used to exit the city. These manifestations are hard to assess in terms of participant numbers: the truckers are wary of politicians and do not want to stand under the flags of parties. This is due to both countermeasures taken by law enforcement agencies and the protesters’ characteristics. Horizontal ties are very strong among truckers and they have a habit of conversing via CB radio. Cooperation with civil society activists has just been established. Thus, a spokesperson who communicates with journalists has emerged in the Khimki camp. 

Initially, the drivers appealed to the authorities in a vengeful manner demanding that the presumptuous oligarchs be punished. Tolls are collected by a company owned by Igor Rotenberg, the son of businessman Arkady Rotenberg. The latter is, in turn, known to be a close friend and judo sparring partner of Vladimir Putin’s. However, discontent was not extended to the President. The truckers asked the government from the parking lot in the Moscow suburb of Khimki: “Have you calculated the losses? How much will you have to pay in unemployment benefits after the carriers are ruined?”. The drivers spoke as if the decision to introduce tolls had been taken spontaneously. The government has, in fact, been preparing for the introduction of the tolls since 2011. A decision was made to postpone the introduction of the tolls prior to the 2012 presidential elections in order to avoid prompting unrest.

Over the past 4 years, the authorities have grown accustomed to relying on “Putin’s majority”, as it is construed by spin doctors. Top officials believe that ordinary Russians will support any initiative taken at the top: from Crimea’s accession and the fighting in the Donbas to the ban on imported goods. Many truckers belong to the majority convenient for the Kremlin. But when the “Platon” system was put into operation it transpired that governmental support is not unlimited. The drivers approve of Putin as “a strong leader” but do not consider this to be sufficient reason for the government to put its hand in their pocket.

Prospects of the protests

The authorities themselves turned the truckers into a non-systemic opposition. The protesters were divided into “the inconvenient” and “the convenient” ones and then “a dialogue” was initiated with the latter. Only loyal drivers were allowed to attend the meeting of freight forwarders with the Minister of Transport Maxim Sokolov in late November. Officials also occupied seats in the room. Those truckers who demanded the abolishment of the “Platon” system were not invited to the event.

The Deputy Head of the Federal Road Agency Dmitry Pronchatov made it clear that the authorities are the ones who establish the communication framework and that the protesters should not violate it: “There are some with whom a constructive outcome is impossible. These are those who cry ‘Cancel Platon! We do not want to hear anymore, introduce a moratorium! Do not impose fines!’. This element of the protesters calls for illegal actions, road blocking”.

The conflict between the truckers and the power vertical appears to be frozen on the surface at the moment, but it is doomed to have far-reaching consequences. To begin with, a deep economic crisis in Russia has already prompted a drop in shipping. Truckers argue that the “Platon” system will quickly lead to their bankruptcy. Thus, radical flare-ups of protests cannot be ruled out: for example, a driver who cannot feed his family could decide to torch his truck in front of the administration’s building.

Secondly, and this is noted by both the protesters and independent experts, the authorities do not appreciate the real economic situation in the country. The middle class is shrinking rapidly, the poor are getting poorer, while the government continues to introduce new taxes and levies. Apart from the tolls paid for the use of federal highways, these truckers will also have to pay tolls on more sections of these very highways. The president’s approval rating is now reaching 90%, which does not, however, mean that Russians are willing to hand over more and more money at a time when they are earning less and less (whether in rubles or dollars).

Thirdly, the protesters have to be aware of the political nature of their conflict with the authorities. Driver, Victor Veselov, from Saint Petersburg, tells journalists in no uncertain terms that he has a bone to pick with Putin: “He swore three times that he would defend our, citizens’ interests. I drive around the country and I can see abject poverty everywhere”. Another driver, Alexander Alekseyenko, shared similar thoughts: “If a person who is governing us does not cope with his duties, the conclusion is as follows: such a person should be kicked out”. Aleksey Ulyanov, a coordinator of the Volgograd group of truckers asserts, contrarily, that their action is non-political: “We are apolitical. Accordingly, not a single political demand is put forward by us. Our demand is purely economic: the abolition of tolls for the use of federal highways”.

However, this “purely economic” demand is political for the Kremlin. One of the main rules of the system: the authorities should not make concessions to citizens. Any cancellation of a previously taken decision is perceived as weakness. This principle is also reflected in the law “on non-profit organizations-foreign agents”. NGOs that conduct political activity, that is any group that influences the decisions of public authorities directly or indirectly, fall into this category in Russia. It is obvious that the demand to cancel tolls for the use of federal highways poses a threat to Kremlin policy. It is from this point of view that the authorities are likely to perceive peaceful attempts of truckers to unite in order to protect their interests; to create a trade union or a political party.

Disappointment with television

The unity of the Kremlin and “the commoners” has turned out to be short-lived and the current outrage is but a run-up to the impending divorce. The clash between “the working people” and the real system of power has yet another dimension: propaganda. Since November, state-owned TV channels have been instructed not to cover the truckers’ protests. Not seeing themselves on TV, ordinary drivers started to wonder to what extent the pictures shown in respect of other cases are a true reflection of reality?

Truckers have gradually come to realize that – through fees – they have to pay for the Kremlin’s geopolitical escapades. It is true that TV propaganda, the very consumers of which they themselves were in recent years, does affect the public’s perception of the situation. While speaking at a rally, Alexander Alekseyenko, a driver from the Ivanovo Oblast chided Putin about his betrayal of Russians in the south-east of Ukraine. Russian television presented the war in the Donbas precisely as a defense of fellow countrymen against “Kyiv punishers” after all. One of the truckers admitted that, after the ‘accession’ of Crimea, he was willing to sell his truck in order to go and fight in the south-east of Ukraine. Now, as combat operations have moved to Syria, military spending is perceived as a burden. The protesters point out that flights of planes and helicopters over foreign lands cost the Russian treasury millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, it is precisely successful foreign policy (in the eyes of the majority of Russians) which forms the basis for the perception of Vladimir Putin as a legitimate leader. However “the greatness of the superpower” requires more and more money and brings with it more and more risk. The trucker protests exemplify that accumulated discontent with domestic policy may spread to foreign policy in the future. In such a case, the political regime is in danger of losing its resilience. Without the support of the middle and working classes, the weight of the system will be borne by its only pillar: the security forces and officials. Should the situation unfold along these lines, Russia may undergo yet another serious transformation between 2016-2018. 

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