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The truckers' revolt Drivers from around Russia descend on Moscow for a massive protest against new tolls

Source: Meduza
Photo: Vladimir Smirnov / TASS / Vida Press

Last weekend, there were protests across Russia by truckers against the launch of "Platon," a new federal highway system that imposes tolls on vehicles weighing more than 12 metric tons. Talk among demonstrators is increasingly about taking the movement to Moscow, where a massive protest was previously scheduled to occur on Monday, November 30. Those plans have changed, and the soonest the truckers might assemble in the capital is now Friday, December 4. Many of the men who planned to be in Moscow by the end of November still haven't made it into the city, thanks to obstacles put in their way by traffic police. Officers are searching the trucks (looking for drivers without cargo) and blocking their movement. Some Moscow-bound protesters have only just left their home cities, but they're already encountering checkpoints well outside of Moscow, often with SWAT-team reinforcements. 

The first demonstrations against the new "Platon" system began on November 11. They've only grown since then. The system levies a highway toll on semi trucks weighing more than 12 metric tons. There are believed to be roughly 2 million such trucks in Russia. In November, the toll for every kilometer was set at 1.52 rubles (a bit more than 2 cents). In December, that charge will rise to 3.73 rubles (almost 6 cents) per kilometer. 

During the first two weeks of the protests, the biggest demonstrations occurred in Dagestan, where more than 17,000 people went on strike, linking semi trucks together in a row 57 kilometers (35 miles) long. It was these protesters in Dagestan who first started talking about taking the demonstrations to Moscow. Around this time, representatives of the Ministry of Transportation and Dagestani local officials met with the truckers. The Federal Road Agency hurried to declare that the "crisis situation" had been "settled." Nevertheless, columns of cars and trucks set out for Moscow this past weekend. 

In St. Petersburg, the decision to ride for Moscow was finally made on Saturday, November 28, after a meeting behind closed doors between truckers and Maksim Sokolov, Russia's Transport Minister. The meeting was closed to many in the movement who wished to attend, and even the people allowed in later told the press that Sokolov did not listen to them, refusing flatly to dismantle the Platon toll system.

Unexpectedly, one of the coordinators of the truckers' protests has become opposition politician Sergei Gulyaev, who served in the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan, was one of the rescue workers in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and served as a city councilman in St. Petersburg. In 2007, he helped organize the city's "March of Dissent" protests, several times rallying more people than were in attendance at similar demonstrations in Moscow (where far more protesters typically turn out for such events). Earlier this year, he tried to run for governor of St. Petersburg as a candidate from the opposition party RPR-Parnas, but he was unable to collect enough signatures.

In response to accusations that he doesn't have any business representing the truckers, Gulyaev points out that he completed 30 trips to Afghanistan during the USSR's war, when he served as the senior officer of supply convoys numbering 20-60 trucks.

For the most part, the truckers' protest is being organized at the local level. This past weekend, demonstrations occurred in several regions throughout the country: in Kazan, Pskov, Izhevsk, Krasnoyarsk, and other cities. In both Nizhny Novgorod and Dagestan, police arrested roughly 40 drivers. In Novosibirsk, demonstrators agreed to "stick together, refuse to register in the new system, demand the complete dismantling of Platon, and to address their demands to federal authorities," says Novosibirsk opposition activist Sergei Boiko. 

Police inspect heavy trucks headed for Moscow.
Photo: Dmitry Rogulin / AP / Scanpix

In Yekaterinburg, truckers gathered at a rest stop on the city's ring road on Sunday, November 29. Mayor Evgeny Roizman and the regional head of the Transportation Ministry went out to meet with the truckers, but Igor Kholmanskikh, Putin's envoy to the Ural Mountains region, never appeared, despite the truckers' request that he attend. When several truckers drove to Kholmanskikh's home, they found that the entrance to his building was blocked. He soon announced that he would not meet with the protesters, saying their movement includes people who have little to do with the trucking industry, people with a weak grasp of truckers' interests, and individuals "whose goal is to test the strength of the political system's stability."

One of the largest single protests took place in Rostov, 670 miles from Moscow, where drivers from Krasnodar, Volgograd, and the North Caucasus all came together. At the rally, demonstrators adopted an ultimatum addressed to the federal authorities demanding the cancelation and dismantling of the Platon toll system before Thursday, December 3. 

"We informed drivers that we wouldn't hold a rally [in Moscow on November 30], deciding to give the government and Duma deputies some time, so they can response to our previous demonstrations and take the appropriate steps. If they don't remove drivers from the Platon system by December 3, Russia's truckers will ride for Moscow," Alexander Kotov, the head of a local truckers' union, said in a video message.

An address by truckers from 15 regions after gathering in Rostov.

Kotov concluded his video with a message addressed personally to Vladimir Putin, saying, "Mr. Putin, calm down your own people. We don't want disorder—we just want to feed our families. We want to work honestly, earn our daily bread honestly, and help the Motherland transport its goods." Many truckers, incidentally, aim their anger not at the state, but businessman Igor Rotenberg, who owns half of "RT-Invest Transport Systems," which operates the Platon toll system.

Officials from Russia's Ministry of Transportation announced on Sunday, November 29, that freight traffic on federal highways is proceeding normally, and truckers are making deliveries as usual. At the same time, however, police have set up roadblocks all across the country for semi trucks heading to Moscow. Police detained several drivers from Volgograd allegedly as a part of a counter-terrorist operation. Outside Nizhny Novgorod, police have been using any pretext to detain semi trucks since Saturday, November 28. On Sunday, the authorities in Kalmykia stopped a convoy of trucks from Dagestan. The same day, Alexander Rastorguyev, the coordinator for the truckers' movement in St. Petersburg, was summoned to court because of a 500-ruble ($8) unpaid fine. On Monday, November 30, police detained Rastorguyev's car on the highway to Moscow, and sent it back to St. Petersburg by tow truck.

It's still too soon to say if Russia's truckers will hold a mass protest in Moscow this week. Police efforts to prevent demonstrators from reaching the capital are only growing more intense. There are even reports that SWAT teams have been assembled to reinforce traffic police at checkpoints outside the city. Rastorguyev says truckers will make their way into Moscow over the next several days, riding in separate groups. "It's useless to travel in convoys because they spot us right away. Those who are already in Moscow will await others there."

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