The Russian political leadership may have significantly underestimated the potential impact of truckers’ protests.

Communist MP Vladimir Rodin (center) meets with truck drivers who protest against the Platon payment system in the parking lot of the Mega-Khimki retail center in the Moscow Region. Photo: RIA Novosti

The truckers’ protests that started in mid-November in response to the the implementation of the Platon (pay per ton) system, which involves charging fees for vehicles that exceed a maximum permissible weight of 12 tons, is in full swing and widely discussed by Russian independent and opposition media. Thus, its implications for the Kremlin might be more serious than expected, even though the Russian authorities initially underestimated this problem and tried to pass over in silence. 

From White Ribbon protests to truckers' rallies

In 2012, Russia’s White Ribbon opposition protest movement was a response to the controversial results of the 2011 elections for the State Duma. Back then, the Russian authorities had every reason to be concerned that a single protest movement could transform into widespread public protests. Under these circumstances, the future of the nation’s political leadership would have been called into question.

Experts were not very optimistic about this scenario. First, the government still had enough resources to choke the social unrest financially, as it had done in 2005 after an unsuccessful attempt at a quick and easy implementation of the monetization of social benefits.

Second, the authorities thought that protester demographics would be the same as in 2005, when the unrest was driven by socially vulnerable strata, mostly retirees and civil servants. Such protest is inherently defensive and is not likely to gain political momentum

Back in 2005, even the Communist Party failed to capitalize on retirees' malcontent with the elimination of their right to free public transportation, so it makes perfect sense that the White Ribbon activists, who represent the new Russian middle class (aka the “creative class”) and have a huge ideological gap with retirees, could not find any points of common reference.

After the decline of the 2011-2012 protests and even more so after the major public opinion shift after the Crimean and Ukrainian events of 2014 that drove the Russian leadership's ratings to unprecedented heights, it appeared that the Kremlin had no reason to be wary of the thin fifth column so far removed from the people en masse. Most Russians at the time were ecstatic about the recent political developments and willing to sacrifice their well-being for the sake of the government’s foreign policies.

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Even the declining quality of life due to a weak ruble, high inflation rates, and the absence of imported goods did not diminish the public support of President Putin's foreign policy initiatives.

It seemed that all grounds for social or political protest were non-existent. However, the trouble brewed where no one saw it coming: a rather odd social group of truckers who drive 12-ton cargo vehicles.

Truckers take to the streets

In the beginning of November, Russan long-distance truckers started a large-scale strike as a response to the introduction of the Platon ("pay per ton") automatic payment system designed to charge truck drivers for each mile of their route.

Drivers were furious about all aspects of the system: the fee (approximately 2.4 rubles ($0.04) per mile from the beginning of November and over 6.3 ($0.09) rubles per mile beginning March 2016); the fact that no tender offer was placed or bidding conducted prior to entrusting the payment collection to a private company owned by Igor Rotenberg (son of billionaire Arkady Rotenberg, who used to be Putin's judo sparring partner in the 1960s and later in the 1990s and owes all his wealth to his long-standing relationship with Putin); Platon payment system breakdowns, freeze-ups, and malfunctioning that sometimes resulted in multiple charges to the same vehicle; and the size of fines for late payments (ranging from 500,000 to 1 million rubles).

For large companies, the fee was mostly negligible, but in many struggling regions, especially in Dagestan, trucking is a family business, and for them the fees were beyond what they could afford given the recession that cut deeply into their profits.

Russia employs a hundred thousand truckers. With family members, the number does not exceed 1.5 million, which is a little over 1 percent of the total population, but due to their line of work, truckers are very active and determined.

The strike started almost immediately after the introduction of the Platon payment system, and its participants demanded that the fee should be canceled and sharply criticized the authorities, including the President. Some strikers even threatened to help Putin experience “another 1917.”

The strike instantly won the support of the opposition, including parties with parliamentary representation (Communist Party of the Russian Federation and A Just Russia party) and without it (Yabloko party and Alexei Navalny's Progress Party).

Official media has not been covering the strike, but the government made concessions rather quickly. First, fines were significantly reduced to a range of 5,000 to 10,000 rubles ($72-145). Second, the authorities agreed to keep low rates for a prolonged period of time. Still, truckers are not satisfied. They stand their ground and demand that the Platon payment system be revoked.

Will the Kremlin respond?

The government is facing a difficult choice because the current situation is very sensitive. Platon implementation has already angered a whole social group, and it is comprised of people who are not the "humiliated and insulted" kind, but rather self-supporting and economically independent taxpayers who can finally demand to be told where their money is going.

On the other hand, even if all strikers' demands are met, the authorities are not going to score any popularity points. Putin notoriously does not appreciate public pressure, and in his Address to the Federal Assembly on December 3 he completely ignored truckers' issues and the strike, which means that he is not intent on giving in.

However, if nothing is done, the situation will sooner or later spin out of control, and truckers will be able to paralyze the country’s transportation system. In this case, all Russians will hear about the strike, and it will be impossible to keep ignoring that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark."

The Kremlin is likely to take (or has already resolved to take) half-measures: some concessions have already been granted, and some may follow soon, but the fee is there to stay, even though its amount is not going to change for at least a year, and payments will still be collected by Igor Rotenberg's company.

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In this case, the tensions will continue, and truckers may become the social group that will launch the formation of an anti-government movement similar to the Polish Solidarity trade union in the 1980s or the Kuzbass miners' committees in the U.S.S.R. in the early 1990s.

Truckers are not the only social group whose attitude towards the government can change as the recession deepens. Russian business is heavily taxed by corrupt officials and favored entrepreneurs who are not about to curb their appetite in spite of the economic crisis, so the truckers' strike is not the last one of its kind.

At some point, the quantity of protests may turn into quality, and one day the government may wake up to the fact that the Russian post-Crimean consensus is no more, and the reality is the traditional conflict between the authority (bureaucracy) and the rest of the population. Overall, the leadership has a lot to consider, even though it may not have fully understood what lies in wait.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.