At a remote truck stop on the Leningrad Highway, about 100 miles from Moscow, a group of burly independent truckers gathered yesterday around a flat-screen TV to watch President Vladimir Putin's annual state-of-the nation address. They had vowed to cancel their plans to stage a protest rally in the capital if the president would just make a mention of their grievances and promise to look into them. He didn't.
"It's a big disappointment," says Oleg Krutsky, a St. Petersburg trucker and activist with a national truckers' movement that's erupted across the country over the past three weeks. The truckers are protesting a new freight tax that many claim will put them out of business – and line the pockets of pro-Kremlin oligarchs.
"We're people who've been working all our lives. We never thought much about politics at all, but now we're being forced to," says Mr. Krutsky.
On Friday, after days of evading police checkpoints and alleged official measures to intimidate them into cancelling their protest, scores of unidentified large trucks blocked Moscow's outer ring road, paralyzing the city's main artery. Similar protests have been held in other big cities since the tax took effect a month ago, but by blockading streets in the capital the truckers are deepening a confrontation with Putin's government.
Mr. Putin's 16 years in power have seen very few such challenges, and this is the first since he became president in 2012 for the second time. And the situation may escalate in coming days, as more independent truckers strive to reach Moscow along the several radial highways that connect the capital with the country's far-flung regions.
Truck owners belong to new working class
This is the first nationwide industrial action to hit Russia in several years, and it's something quite new. These truckers don’t belong to the traditional, unionized working class or the more cosmopolitan middle class whose pro-democracy street protests rocked Moscow four years ago.
Rather, they are small businesspeople, who mostly own and operate their trucks that supply far-flung regions. Experts say there are about 2 million of them, and they are overwhelmingly supporters of Kremlin policy at home and abroad.
"The mentality of these truckers tends to be very conservative. The state media is finding it very hard to brand them as 'foreign agents' or some such," says Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economic sociologist who is deputy director of the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations.
Truckers are infuriated that the tax is being collected by a private company owned by the Rotenberg family, close friends with Mr. Putin, which takes a reported 20 percent commission for its services.
"They were doing OK, but suddenly they find themselves squeezed by this new tax, which looks like it will add up to about a month's income for most of them. They might have accepted it if it were just an increase in the gasoline tax, or something like that, but the fact they have to pay it to a private company owned by a Kremlin crony has infuriated them, and made this whole issue suddenly quite political," he says.
The truckers' business has been hammered by the current recession, as well as the ruble devaluation that's jacked up the price of spare parts. The so-called Platon tax will force them to pay about 3 cents per kilometer of road time, rising to 6 cents next March.
"We already pay a transport tax of [about $500] a year, and we pay taxes every time we fill our tanks with gas," says German Losev, a trucker from the Volga city of Saransk.
He claims there were promises that the transport tax would be abolished when new gasoline duties were introduced a couple years ago, but that never happened. The government says the new levy will fund road construction and maintenance, although the existing transport and fuel taxes are already earmarked for this purpose.
"I have three children to support, and we were already just getting by. This will crush me. I feel like I work nowadays just to pay taxes, maintain my truck, and service my bank loans. For me, and for many of us, this new tax is an existential issue," he says.
A tax and a tracker
The Platon system requires all truckers to file their itineraries in advance, and pay the tax upfront. If they refuse to do so, they must accept the installation of a tracking device on their trucks, with the requirement that they pay later for the full mileage.
"This is absolutely unacceptable," says Krutsky. "I've gotten used to being a free person. I am not going to allow someone to follow my every movement. I will fight."
Russia’s economic crisis coupled with the global swoon in the price of oil, its main export, have squeezed state revenues. The government is striving to maintain high social spending, big infrastructure projects like the 2018 soccer World Cup, as well as massive military expenditures.
The recession has also imposed hard times on Russia's oligarchs, many of them part of the Kremlin inner circle. Boris Kagarlitsky, a veteran left-wing activist and director of the Institute for the Study of Globalization and Social Movements, says the new tax is a patronage handout.
"It's like medieval tax-farming," he says. "There's a shrinking pie, but these oligarchs feel entitled to their share. So they came up with this scheme. But they reckoned without the huge social protest, which is now explicitly directed against the Rotenbergs and, because they are closely connected with Putin, it immediately becomes political. If they back down now and appease the protesters, it will cause great disquiet among the oligarchs, upon whom the government depends. It's a potentially destabilizing situation."
The Kremlin denies that Putin's personal friendship with his old judo sparring-partner, Arkady Rotenberg, played any role in the awarding of the right to collect the new tax to his son, Igor.
Russia's parliament is currently rushing through a law that would subject "auto rallies" to the same stringent rules that govern other protest meetings, including the need to obtain a permit and limit its location, duration and permitted attendance.
But Russia's main opposition force, the Communist Party – which usually gives strong support to the Kremlin on foreign policy and some other issues – appears to have decided to support the truckers, even though they are not from its traditional base of working-class support.
The new tax is illegal, and it will drive up prices of good for the whole population, says Vladimir Rodin, a Communist deputy in the parliament.
"We will help these drivers by organizing their rally in a central place, and we'll register it as a 'voters' meeting with deputies,' which will make it exempt from the law. We've done this before. This is an issue of such central importance that [the authorities] just cannot be allowed to push it aside or hide it away."