Newspaper article International New York Times

A Russian Revolt, Delayed

Newspaper article International New York Times

A Russian Revolt, Delayed

Article excerpt

Could a major truckers' protest shake Putin?

The revolution has been postponed again.

On Friday afternoon, I was speaking with the anti-Putin organizer and anti-corruption activist Leonid Volkov. He was predicting the regime's impending collapse when he glanced at his iPhone and said, "In fact, right now, as we speak, the long-haul truck drivers are blocking the beltway" around Moscow. The protest had been awaited for weeks, and it was expected to be big, possibly historic.

Russian long-haul truck drivers had been staging smaller protests since at least the middle of last month, demanding the repeal of a new road tax that went into effect Nov. 15. The tax, ostensibly designed to compensate the state for the damage heavy vehicles cause to roads, amounts to 1.53 rubles (less than 3 cents) per kilometer until March 1, and 3.06 rubles (almost 5 cents) thereafter. At current exchange rates, come March, a Moscow-Novosibirsk run would cost about $150 in taxes, or roughly as much as a driver would be paid for the same distance.

To add insult to financial injury, truck owners are required to install a tracking payment-processing system called Platon (an acronym for "payment for tonnage" that sounds just like the way Russians pronounce the name of the Greek philosopher), made by a company that belongs to Igor Rotenberg, the son of one of President Vladimir Putin's lifelong friends and closest associates.

The new tax is widely perceived as nothing more than a conduit for corruption. In this country of long distances and import- dependent economy, there are nearly two million long-haul trucks. Their drivers and operators have the power and the equipment to make the Russian economy slow down and its road traffic come to a standstill.

Last month the drivers began by staging rallies and a couple of kinds of protests in their own cities. The most popular came to be known as ulitka, "the snail": A number of drivers would place their trucks in all the lanes of a given road and then slow to a crawl, forcing traffic to back up. Another form of protest, tried in Chelyabinsk, in the Urals, forced traffic to stop by having a group of people constantly moving back and forth in a single pedestrian crosswalk.

There is a reason some drivers chose to protest on foot rather than in their trucks, and this reason points to a fundamental difficulty with the protests. To an even greater extent than many of their compatriots, long-haul drivers are at the mercy of the Russian bureaucracy: They have driving licenses and various permits that can be revoked. Any traffic cop can take away a long-haul trucker's livelihood.

If the truckers could be sure all their colleagues were taking the same risks, they might be able to disregard the traffic-police problem. But here they run up against the classic organizing issues of communication and trust. …

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