Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Between Opportunist Revolutionaries and Mediating Spoilers: Failed Politicization of the Russian Truck Drivers' Protest, 2015-2016

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Between Opportunist Revolutionaries and Mediating Spoilers: Failed Politicization of the Russian Truck Drivers' Protest, 2015-2016

Article excerpt

Russian truck drivers' massive protest against new fee in late 2015 attracted wide attention in Russian liberal circles and abroad with some movement entrepreneurs seeing it as the start of a democratic revolution in Russia. The regime was clearly taken aback by this challenge, which differed from previous Putin-era waves of contention. Unlike the protest in 2005 and 2011-2012, the activists could apparently neither be bought off with partial concessions nor framed as isolated from "the people" and their everyday concerns. However, after hectic activity during the first month, the level of protest decreased drastically, and the strand calling for substantial political change became marginalized. This article analyzes the interaction between protesters and political actors in the initial, critical phase in order to show how the protest became drawn into the dynamic of the Russian hybrid political system. The sharp discursive divide between (legitimate) economic and (illegitimate) political protest made it difficult for "politicizers" to be accepted by the protesters, whereas the "systemic opposition," through its active support, paradoxically prevented radicalization and rendered the protests largely toothless. Well-meaning arbiters such as the Presidential Council for Human Rights and Civil Society served mainly to channel discontent and stall the protests.

In November 2015, a new system for collecting fees from vehicles heavier than 12 metric tonnes was introduced in Russia. (1) Under this new system, called "Platon" (pplata za tonnu, i.e. pay per tonne), 3.73 rubles per vehicle per kilometer would be collected on federal roads. Drivers were forced to register their routes in advance or by using a satellite-based tracking device. (2) Apart from a guaranteed 10.6 billion ruble annual commission to the operator, closely linked to two of Putin's closest cronies, the amount collected would help finance road maintenance. The legal foundation for Platon was laid in 2011, with a fee stipulated on the grounds that heavy vehicles damage roads. After numerous delays, a 13-year contract for developing and operating the system was awarded to RT-invest transportnye sistemy (RTITS), at the time controlled by the state company Rostekh.

The introduction of Platon outraged many truck drivers, who objected that they were victims of "triple taxation" (transport tax and fuel tax, in addition to Platon), and also that the new fee would remove their profit margin and result in rising prices for the average consumer. Further, they complained that the system did not function properly; that the electronic tracking devices were not available; and that the system restricted their freedom to choose assignments. Truck drivers from many regions across the country engaged in disruptive action, establishing camps, partly blocking roads, and organizing street demonstrations. At the height of the tensions, it was reported that 800 truck drivers from Dagestan had formed a column ready to paralyze traffic in Moscow by blocking the outer Ring Road (MKAD). (3)

The sheer force of the protests lit a flame of hope among opposition-minded observers and some Western commentators. Oligarchcum-democracy-activist Mikhail Khodorkovskii declared that the truck drivers' protests were the first signs of an inevitable revolution. (4) A Forbes commentator indicated that Putin might have "met his match" in the truck drivers, and stated that "apolitical Russian long-distance truck drivers can set off a Russian Spring, just as a small Tunisian merchant set off the Arab Spring, in response to public revulsion over corruption and mismanagement." (5)

However, by January 2016, they seemed to have been proved wrong. Despite active involvement by a range of activists, protest activity had dropped. Attempts at politicization or linking up with other groups of discontented citizens had not enjoyed much success. One year after the protests began, protest events still occurred regularly, but on a far smaller scale and with less intensity than in late 2015. …

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