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

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" (oplata 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. Thus far, the authorities appeared to be on the winning side, with politicizing forces largely marginalized.

To be sure, the authorities deployed their usual carrot-and-stick tactics.6 They lowered the fines hundredfold and introduced a transport tax deduction based on the payment through Platon. They also cut the fee by more than 50 percent, although sending mixed messages as to whether or when it would be increased again. A repressive law severely restricting driving in columns (avtoprobegi) was quickly initiated and passed.7 In addition, there have been numerous reports of petty harassment and detainments of national and regional activists; of the traffic police severely restricting truck movements prior to rumoured or announced protest actions; and of administrative obstacles to demonstrations. Social media content that relates in any way to trucks has at times been blocked and manipulated.8

However, concessions and repression alone cannot explain why the politicizing protesters ended up marginalized and the protest action fizzled. In this article, I show how the dialogue and interaction between protesters on the one side and politicians and officials on the other served to prevent the politicization and radicalization of the protest movement. Though these actors had different - and, in some cases, diametrically opposed - goals, they ended up contributing to the failed politicization of the protest. …

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