As soon as the Platon system, a new set of road fees for large vehicles, went into effect across Russia on November 15, the snails began appearing around the country.
Groups of truckers began taking up all but one or two lanes of a highway and driving as slow as they possibly could, bottling up traffic in what has come to be known as a "snail." This week, truckers have been converging on Moscow and threatening to similarly shut down the 68-mile Moscow Ring Road, one of the most vital transport links in the country. It's a rare economic protest that has pitted the Kremlin — the Platon system is operated by a close associate of President Vladimir Putin — against a social group that it normally can count on for support.
"It's dangerous, but we're desperate," Sergei Vladimirov, an independent truck driver from St. Petersburg, said when asked about the threats to close down the ring road. He and other drivers have occupied part of an IKEA parking lot northwest of Moscow with about 20 trucks, fueling themselves with Theraflu and donated food. They are refusing to leave until the toll system is canceled. "It's easier to live in prison than give away all the money that I earn. There I'll live like a plant, but I'm already living like a plant."
Under the new system, vehicles of 12 tons or more are required to pay 1.53 rubles ($0.02) for every kilometer they drive on federal highways, a fee that will rise to 3.6 rubles in March. Added up, the toll will make it impossible for them to earn a living, independent truck drivers say. The government says the fees are necessary to maintain roads, but the truckers argue that they already pay for this through fuel and transportation taxes. About 100 protesting trucks are reportedly lurking at points along the Moscow ring road.
"The important thing is not that the truckers will take the Kremlin or change the regime — they won't," said analyst Yekaterina Schulmann. "It's that this is one of the first political consequences of the worsening economic situation. There will be more in 2016."
Andrei, a truck driver from Ivanovo who has been hauling for 34 years, said he can make about 450,000 rubles ($6,600) a year after taxes, but 300,000 of that will now go toward the Platon fees. Factoring in miscellaneous costs, he estimated he'll be able to make only 10,000 rubles ($150) a month.
"I can make that working as a security guard and live at home, eat at home, be with my kids and grandkids," he said. "We want to make money for our kids and grandkids, but they won't let us do even that. Why work just to work?"
"This system is raw, it doesn't work," said Vartan, a trucker from Moscow. "You go in to register, there are huge lines, you can't even pay. Everything works like shit."
Adding to the truckers' fury is the fact that the fees are being collected by a company owned in part by Igor Rotenberg, the son of Putin's friend and judo sparring partner Arkady Rotenberg, who reportedly received more than $7 billion in contracts for the Sochi Winter Olympics. More recently, the elder Rotenberg was awarded a contract to build a $3.3 billion bridge to Crimea.
Although the Kremlin denies any nepotism was involved in the Platon project, the contract was awarded to Igor Rotenberg's company without the open tender that was initially planned. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny's anti-corruption group has argued that both the awarding of the contract and the budget money Rotenberg's company will reportedly receive are illegal.
Protesting truckers see the new road fees as a way for a Kremlin-connected oligarch to line his pockets, and have dubbed them the "Rotenberg tax." A photo making the rounds on social media showed a truck in Dagestan with a sign saying, "Rotenberg is worse than IS," a bold statement in Russia, which has been conducting airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State (IS) and other rebel groups.
'This system is raw, it doesn't work. You go in to register, there are huge lines, you can't even pay. Everything works like shit.'
"Mostly this is just so they can steal, because the system is not transparent," Vladimirov, the truck driver from St. Petersburg, said of the Platon fees.
The protesters on the ring road are a far cry from the middle-class urbanites who populated the wave of street demonstrations against Putin from 2011 to 2013, but rather members of a more conservative blue-collar group. This could bode ill for Putin's government, which draws its support from such salt-of-the-earth voters. Tellingly, state television broadcasts have ignored the protests.
Even though the Platon system is being implemented by the son of Putin's friend, the truck drivers insist their protest was not directed against the president. Several said they would call it off entirely if Putin mentioned the dispute during his address to the federal assembly on Thursday, but he didn't.
"We didn't come here to discuss Putin," Andrei said, arguing Putin wasn't to blame for his associates' actions. "Do you know what your friends are doing at all times?"
"We support the government, we just don't like this (Platon system)," added Sergei, a Moscow trucker. "People hand out fliers here, but why? We only care about one thing. We don't get into politics."
As if to underline this point, Russian flags hung from the sides of many of the trucks.
Nonetheless, the threats to close the Moscow Ring Road, also known as the MKAD, have made the authorities nervous. As the truckers attempted to gather for what many said would be a "snail" on the MKAD on Friday, the police unexpectedly pre-empted them, stopping traffic on the ring road for what they said was a planned operation. The move created a six-mile traffic jam that lasted for hours.
Meanwhile, riot police and paddy wagons headed toward the IKEA store in Khimki, where a group of truckers had gathered in the parking lot. On Saturday, riot police, regular officers and paddy wagons were still standing at the entrance. The truckers said they weren't letting any trucks in or out.
"We are keeping the peace, so that nobody offends them," one policeman said when asked if they were deliberately hemming in the truckers. But his colleague was more candid. "There won't be any blocking of the MKAD," he said.
Shulmann tied the truckers protest to the worsening economic situation after oil prices fell last year. With less oil money to go around, the Kremlin has to let the oligarchs enrich themselves in other ways, she said, lest their loyalty wane.
"It's a dangerous situation," she said. "You need to feed [the oligarchs], but there's nothing to feed them with, so they go feed off the people, but the people get angry at you." .
A growing number of such economic protests will force the Kremlin to taker a softer approach in 2016, she predicted. Already, lawmakers have made a concession to the truckers by reducing the fine for failing to pay Platon fees from more than $7,000 to $150, and the transport ministry has said it may postpone the price hike planned for March.
"Because of the decreasing level of control, there will be more democratization," Shulmann said. "Not democracy, but the process of more power groups and actors being taken into account and getting a say in a decision-making process."
Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the name of analyst Yekaterina Schulmann was misspelled as Shulmann. The story has been amended.
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