Russian Government Could Pay for Protests Against Plato Road Tolls System
Olga Adamchuk Vedomosti
January 8, 2019
“No to Rotenberg’s extortion” read stickers on long-haul trucks in early 2017, when highways were blocked [sic] in protest against the introduction of the Plato road tolls system. An agreement that would establish an automated weight-and-size monitoring system on federal highways, fining overweight trucks, would protect its likely operator, RT Invest Transport Systems (RTITS) from problems associated with such manifestations of dissent.
Currently, RTITS is 23.5% owned by Igor Rotenberg [son of Putin crony Arkady Rotenberg], 50% by RT Invest, 19% by Andrei Shipelov, and 7.5% by Anton Zamkov.
If there are rallies, demonstrations, meetings, and marches near the automated weight-and-size monitoring points, even if these events were authorized, and they hindered the construction or operation of the Plato system, incurring extra costs to the operator, the Russian government would be obliged to compensate the operator for these expenses, according to a draft concessionary agreement, published December 28 on the official Russian government bidding information website torgi.gov.ru. The operator would be able to bill the government not only for actually incurred losses but also for expected losses.
The government will wait for other bids until February 12. If other bids are submitted, there will be a tender for the contract. If there are no bids, the agreement will be signed on the current terms.
However, downtime in the operation of the scales will have no effect on the operator’s revenues, which will be supplied not by Russian truckers, but by the Russian government. For installing and maintaining the system, the operator will be paid 8.64 billion rubles annually [approx. $129 million] (VAT not included) over eleven and a half years. The government will shell out a total of 118.45 billion rubles [approx. $1.7 billion] (VAT included) to the system’s operator. The concessionaire would pay fines for the glitches for which it was responsible. An appendix to the agreement stipulates the system must identify three quarters of violators.
The agreement features a long list of special circumstances in which the operator can demand additional payments from the government, including when inflation is twice as high as was expected, and if the project goes over budget by ten percent or more.
The government would also permit the system’s operator to use the property it builds and installs, which remains state property, for any purpose, including commercial ends.
A concession deals insider notes this stipulation has usually not been part of projects in which the grantor made payments to the concessionaire, since, if there were an opportunity to earn money, it should reduce the fee paid by the grantor. The agreement also lacks the routine stipulation that key subcontractors must be approved by the grantor. Our source wondered why the government was thus willing to forfeit oversight of the project. If the concessionaire had managed to obtain cheap financing, the government could reduce its fee: the state and investors would usually share benefits equally, but there is nothing of the sort in the proposed agreement.
Currently, there are 28 weight-and-size monitoring points operating on Russian federal highways. After the new system has been completely installed, in 2024, there will be 387 automated weigh stations. Under the terms of the project application, eighty-eight of these weigh stations will be built by way of improving the current Plato road toll system, the Russian Transport Ministry has reported.
Investors are also protected in case the agreement is terminated. The Russian government shoulders a greater payout to the concessionaire than it would in similar agreements, said Sergei Luzan, director of PricewaterhouseCoopers Russia (PwC Russia). Even if the project never gets off the ground, the concessionaire can incur two billion rubles in expenses and have them repaid by the Russian government. Such conditions are possible in concessions, but the government usually only pays costs that have been itemized and authorized in advance, and at a discounted rate, Luzan said.
In 2017, protesters demanded the government terminate the concession agreement for the Plato road toll payment system. Andrei Bazhutin, [chair of the Association of Russian Carriers or OPR], said truckers were planning to protest the launch of the weight-and-size monitoring system as early as February. According to Bazhutin, Russia’s independent truckers had been engaged in serious discussions.
Alexander Kotov, chair of the Truck Drivers Trade Union, also confirmed discussions were underway, but he refused to say when protests could begin. He said carriers would like to see shippers bear the cost for overloaded vehicles.
Having to pay for an overloaded vehicle that travels through several weigh stations could simply ruin a small trucking company, but it would also go bust if it refused to dispatch the overweight vehicle, explained the head of a major logistics company, because the shipper would hire another carrier.
As cited by the Transport Ministry, the RADOR Association (a national organization of local road authorities) has claimed that overloaded trucks cause 2.6 trillion rubles in damage to highways annually. According to statistics, there are no longer any problems with federal highways, since they are in between scheduled overhauls. But the president has ordered an overhaul of regional roads, which are still in a state of chaos.
The truckers and spokespeople of truckers associations surveyed by Vedomosti were unhappy with the current weigh stations. Bazhutin said that, compared with the Plato system, the weight-and-size monitoring system still had numerous shortcomings, for example, the fact that weather conditions had a huge impact on the accuracy of scales. He also noted that drivers do not see whether they are running overweight when they drive over the scales, and so when they receive a fine of between 100,000 rubles and 500,000 rubles [$1,500 to $7,500] in the mail, it is a complete surprise to them. If a trucker fails to pay the fine, his or her account is blocked.
“It’s just like with Plato. It doesn’t matter whether you were running empty or loaded. You have to pay whether you were overweight or not, since the system registered a violation. It’s impossible to dispute a fine. Since this whole business puts pressure on self-employed carriers, there will likely be protest rallies and marches,” said Bazhutin. “But we’re unlikely to set up a protest camp next to a weight station in Yaroslavl Region, say, when it is the federal authorities who are making the decision.”
Kotov argued that, since the bulk of cargo in Russia is shipped by trucks, this new financial burden would ultimately be passed on to consumers.
Political scientist Abbas Gallyamov argued the state of public opinion is currently such that things could kick off anywhere whatsoever. Any action by the authorities that is deemed unjust is capable of setting off a wave of protests. Gallyamov notes that Russian truckers have demonstrated their willingness to fight back and their capacity for coordination; moreover, they did so in circumstances in which public opinion was generally much more inclined to side with the regime. Given this past history, the chances of Russian truckers rising in protest again were great, he concluded.
Spokespeople for the Transport Ministry and RTITS told that the terms of the agreement were standard.
Opponents of Plato Road Tolls System Complain to European Court of Human Rights They Have Been Victims of Political Persecution Their Organization Was Earlier Ruled a “Foreign Agent”
Anastasia Kornya Vedomosti
December 26, 2018
The Association of Russian Carriers (OPR), an organization of independent truck drivers the Russian Justice Ministry placed on its list of “foreign agents” late last year, has filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR) in Strasbourg, claiming its right to freedom of association had been violated and it had been subjected to political persecution, in violation of Article 11 and Article 18 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as reported by Alexei Glukhov, a lawyer with the Agora International Human Rights Group who represents the OPR in Strasbourg.
The OPR emerged during the campaign for the rights of truckers that kicked off after the Plato road tolls payment system went online in November 2015. The OPR brought together independent truck owners and truck drivers. In June 2017, it announced it was planning to nominate its chair, Andrei Bazhutin, as a candidate for the Russian presidency. Shortly thereafter, the Justice Ministry launched an audit of the OPR, resulting in its being ruled a “foreign agent.” The ministry cited four donations from private individuals in Germany, totaling 3,620 euros, as evidence of “foreign financing.”
In a report on its oversight of the work of “foreign agent” NGOs in 2017, the Justice Ministry claimed the OPR had engaged in “political activity” by “organizing and holding events calling for the resignation of the Russian federal government.” In June of this year, the Krasnogvardeisky District Court in Petersburg fined the OPR 400,000 rubles [approx. $5,755] for failing to voluntarily [sic] register itself as a “foreign agent.”
The complaint says the OPR has been a nuisance to the Putin regime since the organization has led the campaign against the Plato road tolls payment system, which ultimately benefits businessmen closely allied with the Kremlin. The truckers are certain it was their grassroots activism that caused the authorities to persecute them. The fine leveled against the OPR not only was far in excess of the foreign donations it received but has also financially ruined the organization.
Glukhov points out the ECHR has received several dozen complaints from Russian NGOs labeled “foreign agents” by the Russian government, but the court has not yet ruled on Russia’s “foreign agent” law and its application in practice. However, the court has communicated the facts of the first large group of cases to the Russian authorities, while a second group of cases was nearing completion, meaning that a ruling on complaints filed by Russian “foreign agent” NGOs could be expected next year, argues Glukhov. The OPR’s complaint is part of a third wave of complaints filed in Strasbourg. As they await the court’s ruling, Russian NGOs continue to suffer from the harsh law.
Everyone has the right to complain to the EHCR, but the Russian Justice Ministry begins to work with a complaint [sic] only after the court has communicated its consent to hear the case, says Andrei Fyodorov, head of the office of Russia’s representative to the EHCR.
Lawyer Dmitry Agranovsky says the EHCR has rarely ruled that Article 18 of the European Convention has been violated. Recently, however, in response to a complaint filed by opposition politician Alexei Navalny, the court ruled Russia had violated Article 18. The ruling was a precedent of sorts. Agranovsky has the sense that, before the Navalny case, the court’s Grand Chamber had postponed other cases in which Article 18 had been invoked, but now it had worked out a common set of rules that could be applied in other cases as well. On the other hand, there was a risk Article 18 would be devalued, Agranovsky warns [sic].
[Three] Years of Plato: How Russian Authorities Forced Truckers to Pay Road Tolls
[Three] years ago, on November 15, 2015, Russian authorities launched the Plato system (“Plato” is an acronym for “payment for a ton” in Russian) to collect tolls from owners of heavy-duty trucks traveling on federal highways. The authorities claimed their goal was to compensate for the damage the trucks caused to roads. It was decided the toll would be applied to owners of trucks weighing over twelve tons. Photo courtesy of Maxim Stulov/Vedomosti and RBC
The right to develop and implement Plato was awarded to RT Invest Transport Systems without tendering. The company is owned on a parity basis by Igor Rotenberg and RT Invest, which is 25.01% owned by Rostec and 74.99% owned by Andrei Shipelov’s firm Tsaritsyn Capital LLC. The Russian government agreed to pay Plato’s developer and operator 10.6 billion rubles [approx. $153 million at current exchange rates] annually. Photo of Igor Rotenberg courtesy of Nikolai Galkin/TASS and RBC
Opposition politician Alexei Navalny and Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) lawyer Ivan Zhdanov asked that the courts declare the government’s agreement with RT Invest Transport Systems null and void. Their lawsuit was rejected first by the Moscow Court of Arbitration, and later by the Russian Constitutional Court. Photo of Alexei Navalny courtesy of Yevgeny Razumny/Vedomosti and RBC
Truckers in forty Russian regions protested against Plato in November 2016. They demanded Plato be turned off, a three-year moratorium imposed on its use, and the system be tested for at least a year. Photo by Yevgeny Yegorov/Vedomosti and RBC
When Plato was launched in November 2015, truck drivers paid 1.53 rubles a kilometer. Four months later, the authorities planned to double the toll, but after negotiations with truckers they made concessions, reducing the toll increase to 25%. Since April 15, 2017, the authorities have charged trucks 1.91 rubles a kilometer. Photo courtesy of Sergei Nikolayev/Vedomosti and RBC
However, even the discounted [sic] toll increase did not sit well with all truckers [sic]. On March 27, 2016, the OPR went on what it called an indefinite nationwide strike. Truckers protested the toll increases and demanded fairness and transparency at weight stations. Photo by Yevgeny Razumny/Vedomosti and RBC. [The slogans read, “Down with Plato!!! It’s Rotenberg’s Feeding Trough” and “We’re Against Toll Roads.”]
In October 2017, the government approved a bill increasing fines for nonpayment of Plato tolls from 5,000 rubles to 20,000 rubles. If passed, the law would make it possible to charge drivers for violations that occurred six months earlier. The new rules were set to take effect in 2018. Photo of Dmitry Medvedev courtesy of Dmitry Astakhov/TASS and RBC
Plato’s database has registered 921,000 vehicles weighing over twelve tons. According to the Russian Transport Ministry, during its first two years of operation, Plato raised 37 billion rubles for the Federal Roads Fund. In the autumn of 2017, the government selected three projects that would be financed by the monies raised by Plato: a fourth bridge in Novosibirsk and bypasses around the cities of Chusovoy (Perm Territory) and Khabarovsky. Photo courtesy of Georgy Shpikalov/PhotoXPress and RBC
Vehicles that transport people are exempt from Plato tolls, as are emergency vehicles, including vehicles used by firefighters, police, ambulance services, emergency services, and the military traffic police. Vehicles used to transport military equipment are also exempt from the toll. Photo courtesy of Gleb Garanich/Reuters and RBC
“Delivery for a favorite client.” A short-haul freight truck in downtown Petersburg, August 8, 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader
Officials Want to Equip New Trucks with Special Sensors as of 2024 Carriers Are Worried Tightening Monitoring Weight and Size of Trucks Will Increase Load on Business
Elizaveta Bazanova and Vladimir Shtanov Vedomosti
December 24, 2018
Officials have concocted a new way to monitor business. They want to equip trucks with axial-load sensors in order to combat trucks hauling loads in excess of legal weights. Legislation requiring such loads be transported by trucks weighing over 3.5 tons will be drafted by 2024. The plan is contained in the outline of the Russian government’s national Safe and High-Quality Highways project, two federal officials told Vedomosti. A spokesperson for Deputy Prime Minister Maxim Akimov said the project’s outline would be approved by the cabinet on Monday.
The Industry and Trade Ministry and the Transportation Ministry would have until 2022 to draft amendments to the technical regulations of the Eurasian Customs Union (EACU), forbidding the import to Russia of trucks not equipped with the sensors. The amendments should also be inserted into Russian technical regulations before 2024, according to the national highway project’s outline. (Vedomosti has seen part of this document.) As of 2024, all new trucks will have to be equipped by manufacturers with the sensors, explained Akimov’s spokesperson. Owners of old trucks will not be forced to install them. They will have the option of installing them, says a source who has learned about the plans from a federal official.
Regulations on equipping all Russian trucks weighing more than 3.5 tons with axial-load sensors have not yet been drafted, according to spokespeople at the Transport Ministry and Rosavtodor (Russian Federal Road Agency).
Russian authorities set about establishing weight-and-size monitoring system for freight trucks in 2016. Their goal is to maintain the quality of roads and reduce the number of accidents. Automatic scales that measure the axial load of trucks have been installed on highways in test regions. If a truck is overweight, the carrier must pay a fine of up to 450,000 rubles [approx. 5,800 euros]. A total of twenty-seven checkpoints in eighteen Russian regions have been set up on federal highways. By 2024, the number of checkpoints should rise to 387, covering federal and regional highways in seventy-five regions.
The pilot program in Vologda Region has shown the average overload is thirty percent, the Transport Ministry reported. During their first year of operation, the checkpoints reduced the number of violators from forty percent to four percent. On the federal level, the weight-and-size monitoring system will be a public-private partnership. RT Invest Transport Systems, owned by Igor Rotenberg, son of Arkady Rotenberg, and RT Invest, jointly owned by Rostec and Andrei Shipelov, has shown interest in acquiring an operating license. In June 2018, the company proposed a public-private partnership with the government.
The regions will establish their own public-private partnerships. Truck owners will be able to purchase the sensors from any manufacturer. No directives will be issued on this score, a federal official assured us.
3.74 million trucks were registered in Russia as of July 1, reports Autostat. Under the European classification, trucks weighing between 3.5 tons to 12 tons are categorized as N2. Such trucks are manufactured by KAMAZ, Iveco, Mercedes-Benz, and Renault (Midlum), among other companies. They are usually employed for short hauls, for example, from a distribution center to retail outlets, a logistics manager from a company in the consumer sector told us.
Currently, truck owners rarely install the sensors, said Boris Rybak, director general of Infomost, because equipping a truck costs owners between several tens of thousands to several hundreds of thousands of rubles. Trucks manufactured in the west that carry goods in Russia usually have the sensors pre-installed.
Alexander Lashkevich, director for relations with industrial and infrastructure organizations at the Business Lines Group, said they did not install additional sensors, since they are a standard feature on most imported vehicles, but this applies to trucks with a capacity of more than 12 tons. The new K5 line of trucks from KAMAZ features axial-load sensors as a standard feature, said a company spokesperson. Lashkevich said Business Lines used special calculators that facilitate loading semitrailers so as to avoid overloading.
Introducing weight and size monitoring will help maintain roads, but it is not clear why small-tonnage vehicles need to be equipped with axial-load sensors. Problems with overloaded axles happen to heavy haul vehicles. Ultimately, the load on the shipping business will grow, while the expediency of the planned measures is difficult to assess, warned Lashkevich.
The sensors are not needed on low-tonnage trucks. Problems with excess weight “occur extremely rarely due to the specifics of moving people’s things to new residences,” explained Arkady Usachov, director general of Gentle Move, a moving company.
The damage to roads caused by trucks weighing under 12 tons is considerably less, said Rybak, but equipping even light trucks with the sensors is a worldwide trend: you can load even a 3.5 ton truck with up to ten tons of freight. Such systems are in operation on roads in many countries, agreed Mikhail Blinkin, director of the Institute of Transport Economics and Transport Policy Studies at the Higher School of Economics.
The cost of buying and operating trucks could increase, warned Usachov.
“Freight haulage should be getting cheaper, but this approach will only make it more expensive,” argued Alexander Prokofiev, head of operations at the Moving Center. “Plato, ERA-GLONASS, and other systems will not provide real security, and they will not improve road quality. The amount of freight hauled on the roads will not decrease. Roads have to be built well from the get-go.”
The Truckers’ Battle
Milana Mazayeva Takie Dela
April 10, 2017
Our correspondent spent time with striking truckers in Dagestan and listened to their grievances against the regime.
Ali goes to the Dagestani truckers’ strike every morning. He has four children at home, two of them underage. No one in the family earns money besides Ali.
“If I don’t work, the only thing I can count on is the child support benefit my wife gets, which is 120 rubles [approx. 2 euros] a month. But the powers that be are not going to use that on me to force me to leave. I’m in it till the end.”
A nationwide truckers’ strike kicked off on March 27 in several regions of Russia. The authorities were quick to react. Petersburg traffic police detained Andrei Bazhutin, chair of the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR), accusing him of driving without a license. The incident occurred on the strike’s first day. Bazhutin was taken to a district court and placed under arrest for fourteen days. The sentence was later reduced to five days, and Bazhutin got out of jail on April 1.
The difference between this strike and other protests is that none of the strikers intends to give up, despite the arrests, intimidation, and blandishments meted out by the authorities.
“The arrest took five days from life and upset my family,” says Bazhutin. “Otherwise, nothing has changed about the strike. We said we were going to shut down cargo haulage, and that is what we have been doing. We said we would set up camps outside major cities, and that is what we have been doing. Next, we’re going to be holding rallies and recruiting grassroots organizations and political parties to our cause. Dagestan has been shut down, Siberia has been shut down. Central Russia is also on our side.”
“Officials Rake in the Dough, While We Eke out a Living”: What the Strikers in Dagestan Are Saying
Vakhid: Who the heck are you? What channel are you with? We don’t believe you. You won’t change anything with your articles. We need Channel One out here. Lots of folks have been here. They’ve walked around and taken pictures, and there was no point to it.
Magomed: I’m striking with my dad and our neighbor. The three of us run a rig together. We chipped in and bought it. It fed three families, but now we cannot manage. Over half the money we earn goes to paying taxes, buying diesel fuel, and maintaining the truck, and now on top of that there’s this Plato. We’re in the red. We’re staying out on strike until we win.
Ramazan: Plato has forced us to raise the prices for freight haulage. This triggers a rise in prices in grocery stores. So we’re the villains who take money from the common people and hand it over to Rotenberg? No, I disagree with this. I don’t want that sin on my conscience.
Haji: I don’t have an eighteen-wheeler. I’m a taxi driver. I came here the first day to support my brothers and then left. But then I saw on the web the riot cops had been sent in, and I decided to join the truckers and strike with them. Are they enemies of the people who should be surrounded by men armed to the teeth? Are the riot cops planning to shoot at them? What for?
Umar: I pay Plato 14,000 rubles [approx. 230 euros] for a single run to Moscow and back. It doesn’t matter whether I have a load or I’m running empty. If this goes on, I’ll have to sell the truck. I don’t really believe they’ll abolish Plato, but I have a bit of hope. If I lose my job, my eldest son will have to quit school and support the family. He’s in his fourth year at the police academy.
Anonymous: We don’t have any watch or shift method here. We gave up on the idea because the people whose toes we’re stepping on are just waiting for us to do something that would enable them to charge us with conspiracy and a group crime. We made the decision that everyone would be striking on his own behalf. We have no leaders or chairmen. In 2016, we made a mistake: we elected one person to speak on our behalf. And what happened to him? After the first meeting, he was put on the wanted list and accused of extremism.
Isa: I’m not a long-haul trucker. I have a dump truck, but I decided to take part in the strike, too, because now I have to buy a pass that costs 2,000 rubles a month. What for? I live in town, and I never drive the truck out of town. I’m not causing damage to federal roads, why am I obliged to pay more than what I pay by law? I have four children to support.
Who Started it, or, The Damage Caused by Damage Compensation
The strike was triggered by an increase in the toll rates for vehicles weighing twelve tons or more under the Plato road tolls payment system. The system was set up, allegedly, to offset the damage big rigs cause to Russia’s highways.
When Plato was launched in 2015, the rate was 1.53 rubles per kilometer. The truckers got the rate lowered to this rate through a series of protests, forcing the government to introduce discounted rates.
The second wave of protests kicked off because the rate was supposed to double to 3.06 rubles per kilometer as of April 15, 2017. After Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev met with members of the business community on March 23, 2017, the decision was taken to raise the rates by 25% instead of 50%, but the truckers did not give up on the idea of striking. According to Rustam Mallamagomedov, a representative of Dagestan’s truckers, they prepared for the strike in advance.
“I’ve been in the freight business since 2003. There were things in the past that outraged us, like rising prices and changing tariffs, but Plato has been beyond the pale.
As soon as we learned the rates would go up on April 15, we got ourselves coordinated and went out on strike. We wanted to strike on March 10, but recalling what happened in 2015, we decided to get the regions up to snuff, get in touch with everyone, and go on strike together. Before Plato was launched, we hadn’t even heard of it. We were just confronted with a done deal. Yeah, there had been articles about it on the web, but most truckers aren’t interested in news and politics. We went out on strike as soon as we realized what the deal was.”
The Truckers’ Demands: Abolishing Plato and Firing Medvedev
It is difficult to count the number of strikers. We know there are 39,000 heavy cargo vehicle drivers registered in Dagestan, and the truckers claim that nearly all of them have gone on strike. The strikers’ demands also differ from one region to the next. Only one demand is common to all regions, however: dismantling the Plato system.
“It affects each and every one of us, because prices of products will go up for end users,” Bazhutin explains. “The Plato system will be introduced for passenger vehicles, similar to Germany. Next, we have a number of professional demands, since the industry is on its knees. They include reforming work schedules, making sense of the weight and seize requirements, and generally reforming the transport sector. Our fourth point is forcing the government to resign and expressing no confidence in the president. This lack of confidence has been there and will remain in light of the fact that we have a Constititution, but the Constitution is honored in the breach. People’s rights are violated, and since the president has sworn to protect the Constitution, we have expressed our lack of confidence in him. We believe we have to do things step by step. There must be meetings, there must be dialogue.”
The Dagestani drivers’ list of demands includes access to central TV channels.
“We want to be heard,” insists Mallamagomedov. “The mainstream media are silent, although Dagestan is now on the verge of a revolution. Our guys categorically demand that reporters from the main TV channels be sent here. Only after that would they agree to communicate with the authorities.”
Timur, a member of the Makhachkala Jamaat of Truck Drivers (as they call themselves), lists, among other demand, deferred payment of loans during the strike, thus recognizing it as a force majeure circumstance. In addition, the drivers in Dagestan’s capital have demanded an end to the persecution of strikers and the release of jailed activists.
Platonic Dislike, or, Who Needs Plato?
Yuri, from St. Petersburg, has been driving an eighteen-wheeler since 1977. He has been involved in the strike since day one, going home only to shower and change his clothes. Yuri has calculations, made by a professor at the Vyatsk State Agriculture Academy, according to which the passage of one truck over a stretch of highway corresponds to that of three passengers cars, rather than sixty, as was claimed in a government report on the benefits of the Plato payment system.
When he voices his grievances against Plato, Yuri resorts to the Constitution, which stipulates that vehicles and goods should move unhindered on the roads, and forbids erecting barriers and charging fees. [I honestly could find no such clause in the Russian Constitution, but maybe I was looking in the wrong place — TRR.]
Dagestan has also prepared for the eventuality the regime will try and play on the driver’s political illiteracy. The truckers now can safely converse with officials from the Transport Ministry and defend their case by citing calculations and the constitutions of their country and regions.
“We pay the transport tax and the fuel excise tax. The average truck travels 100,000 kilometers annually,” explains Mallamagomedov. “If Plato were to charge the originally announced toll of 3.73 rubles per kilometer, that would have amounted to 373,000 rubles [approx. 6,150 euros] per year for one truck alone. The fuel excise tax amounts to ten rubles per kilometer. That’s another 400,000 rubles a year.”
“In 2013, Putin clearly said during his annual press conference there was money to build roads. What was lacking was the facilities to build them. At the time, the regional authorities even wanted to refocus these funds on other needs. What happened in two years? Why did the money suddenly dry up? We are willing to pay if necessary. No one has a greater stake in road construction than we do. The roads damage our trucks and send the depreciation through the roof. We suggested adding one or two rubles to the fuel excise tax, rather than enrichening a private company. But what ultimately happened?
“During the past two years, four rubles have been added to the fuel excise tax and Plato has been launched. The government makes five trillion rubles [approx. 82 billion euros] a year from the excise tax alone, although one and a half trillion rubles would suffice for road construction and maintenance. But all the roads are still the same.”
Akhmat lives in the Dagestani city of Manas. It has the largest number of striking drivers, two thousand, and just as many big rigs have been shut down. Akhmat readily admits he has never paid a kopeck to Plato.
“I get fines in the mail, but I don’t pay them and I don’t intend to pay them. The money we pay through the fuel excise tax should be more than enough to fund everything. When we fuel up with diesel, we should have already paid enough to build roads.”
According to intelligence gathered by the strikers themselves, only large companies with a stake in maintaining relations with the authorities are not on strike. All the independent drivers have been striking.
“We’ve been getting information that large retail chains are already experiencing problems supplying certain food products, that cheap products have begun to vanish from the shelves, and that fruits and vegetables, which are shipped through Dagestan, have also vanished,” says Sergei Vladimirov from St. Petersburg. “I’m not going to predict how far this will go.
“What matters is that it not lead to revolution or civil war, because the people’s bitterness can come out in different ways. As citizens and fathers, we wouldn’t want this to happen. But if there is no dialogue, there will be no peace.”
Milana Mazayeva interviews a striking trucker in Dagestan (in Russian)
The possibility of losing one’s livelihood is regarded especially acutely in the North Caucasus.
“In my homeland of Dagestan, around 70% of the men earn their living behind the wheel. It is their only income,” says trucker Ali. “If a man is deprived of the means to feed his family, he’ll be ready for anything. The factories have been shut down: there is no employment in the region. Then they’ll say we’re all thieves and bandits. I’m not saying we’ll go stealing, but this system robs us of our last chance to make an honest living. What should we do? Retreat into the forests?”
Ali has been in the Manas camp for four days. During this time, he has not only failed to change his mind but he has become firmer in his intention not to back down.
“Our guys are camped out in Manas, Khasavyurt, Kizlyar, and Makhachkala.
“We stop everyone who drives by and is not involved in the strike. We ask them to join us, to show solidarity. We are certain the consequences will affect everyone. Someone cited the example of a bottle of milk. He said that, on average, the price of a carton rises by one to three kopecks. The guys who made those calculations didn’t factor in that, before the milk hits the stands in the stores, you have to feed the cow, milk it, process the milk, and produce containers. They ignored the entire logistical chain that gets the milk to the stores, talking instead about a price rise of one kopeck.
“If the authorities do not respond to our demands, people will abandon their TV sets. Television is now saying that everything is fine, and that our only problems are Ukraine and Syria. Meanwhile, the country is impoverished.”
Plato’s branch office in Makhachkala claims the strike has in no way affected its operation. There were few drivers willing to pay in the first place. Most truckers look for ways to outwit the system.
“You cannot say that registration has stopped due to the strike. But we have the smallest percentage of registration in Dagestan,” says Ramazan Akhmedov, head of Plato’s Dagestan office. “Only one to two percent of truckers out of a total of 30,000 are in our system. Everyone else claims they didn’t get the fines. The system doesn’t work if a fine isn’t received, so it means they’re not going to pay.”
“Dagestan also lacks cameras that would record violations and issue fines. They are supposed to be installed before the end of the year. Most drivers travel within Dagestan, where there are no monitoring cameras, and when it is necessary to travel outside the region, they resort to tricks: they buy a temporary package or hide their license plates.”
What the Neighbours Say: Other Countries’ Know-How
Systems similar to Plato are used in many countries around the world, but not all of them have proved their worth, argue the Russian truckers. An OPR delegation visited Germany to learn the advantages and disadvantages of their system.
“The Germans blew it all when they agreed to pay tolls via a similar system,” recounts Sergei Vladimirov. “Three big companies pushed private carriers out of their livelihoods. Then they hired them to work for them and cut their pay in half. Germany is a total nightmare at the moment. A similar system for passenger vehicles is going online as of March 24. We can look forward to the same thing.”
But the carriers said there was no comparison between the quality of the roads in Russian and the west. Obviously, such factors as geography and the condition of roads when repairs are undertaken are quite significant.
“We were told about a similar scheme for collecting tolls in Germany,” says Timur Ramazanov. “I traveled around Germany with a local carrier. Along the way, we came across repairs of a new stretch of road. When I asked him why they were repairing a new road, the driver put a full cup of water on the dashboard and sped the truck up to 160 kilometers per hour. The water in the cup was shaking. That was the reason they were repairing that section of road. It would be unpatriotic, but we should hire the Germans to build our roads.”
Ramazan Akhmedov, head of Plato’s Dagestan branch, defends the system.
“When the system was just going online, we chatted with drivers from Belarus. They told us that, at first, their system wasn’t accepted by drivers. They tried to drive around the cameras, but now everyone pays. The system has proven its worth.”
“The Regime Is Out in Left Field”: The Authorities React to the Strike
The reaction of regional authorities to the strike has been mixed. There are regions where officials attend protest rallies on a daily basis, and there are others where they have been totally ignoring the strike.
Bazhutin argues that the closer you get to the capital, the less dialogue there is.
“The authorities at home in Petersburg have reacted quite languidly for some reason. They don’t want to talk with us. But the heck with them, we’ll wait them out.”
Yuri Yashukov is not surprised by the lack of a reaction on the part of federal authorities.
“How did the regime react to the anti-corruption rallies, organized by Alexei Navalny, which took place in all the big cities? Were they shown on television? Maybe in passing. But everyone is connected to the internet, and there you can see how many people came out for them. The only thing you can show on television is what villains the Ukrainians are, what rascals there are in Syria, and talk shows where people applaud the politicians.”
The only thing the regions have common in terms of how local authorities have reacted to the strike are arrests. There have been several dozen arrests. After Bazhutin was detained and later released, three truckers in Dagestan were jailed for ten to fifteen days. According to reports shared by the strikers on the social networks, there have been further arrests in Surgut, Volgograd, Chita, and Ulan-Ude.
Speaking to strikers on April 4, Yakub Khujayev, Dagestan’s deputy transport minister, asked everyone to disperse for three months and give the government time to draft proposals for abolishing Plato. The strikers immediately booed Khujayev, grabbed the megaphone, and took turns speaking. They urged each other not to succumb to the regime’s blandishments.
“The sons of our officials ride around in Mercedes Geländewagen Td cars, but I can’t afford to buy a Lada 14. Why? Did God make them better than me? How are they better than me?”
“Take the highway patrol in Dagestan. What is the highway patrol? They’re just the highway patrol, but they act like generals. I find it ten times easier to talk to Russian highway patrolmen than with our non-Russian highway patrolmen. They’re quicker on the uptake.”
“Look, brothers, they surrounded us with troops and try to frighten us with weapons. Are we going to let them scare us this way?”
Khujayev claims that Russian National Guardsmen did not encircle the truckers, as was reported by various media outlets.
“It was reported on a Friday that the riot cops had kettled the truckers. Every Friday, the mosques are packed to the gills with folks who park their cars on the road. Near the spot where the truckers have their camp, there is a federal highway, as well as a fork in the road and a mosque. Every Friday, law enforcement officers work to prevent a traffic jam. They go there and ask people not to park their cars on the road, and they help the highway patrol clear it. The exact same thing happened on the Friday when there was the outcry about the Russian National Guard.”
The strikers argue that Prime Minister Medvedev’s meeting with businessmen, at which truckers were present, allegedly, was a fake.
“When we found out who represented us at such a high level. It transpired that one of them was a United Russia party member who didn’t even own a truck, and the other guy travels the country telling everyone what a good system Plato is. How could they represent us if they didn’t even mention the strike at the meeting?” asks Timur Ramazanov, outraged.
Mobilization by Mobile Phone: How the Truckers Use Social Networks
During the strike, the truckers have cottoned to social networks accessible on smartphones, although previously most drivers had ordinary push-button mobile phones. The most popular mobile app is the Zello walkie-talkie app.* The OPR has its own channel on Zello, on which around 400 people are chatting at any one time. There are around 3,000 strikers signed onto the channel.
The app lets you use your smartphone like a walkie-talkie, albeit a walkie-talkie that operates through the internet. On the truckers’ channel, users not only share news from the regions, do rollcalls, and encourage each other but also advise each other about what to do in certain circumstances.
MAXMAX: Guys, under Article 31 of the Russian Federal Constitution, we have the right to assemble peaceably, but [the authorities] are citing Federal Law FZ-54 on rallies and demonstrations. I advise everyone to read it. All the details are there.
BRATUHA86: Guys, Surgut on the line. Vasily’s court hearing just ended. They charged him with holding an illegal assembly of activists and fined him 20,000 rubles [approx. 330 euros]. That’s how it goes. Tyumen, I heard it’s kicking off in your parts, too. They’re going to identify the most active strikers and fine them like Vasily.
VIRUSID: Fellows, let’s help out by crowdfunding the fine. Everyone chips in 100 rubles each. We’ll raise 20,000 in a jiffy.
ALEKSEYVADIMOVICH: Of course we’ll help out. There are over 300 users online right now and we’ll put the money together quickly.
KAMAZ222: Dagestan supports you. Tell me where to send the money.
1111: Fellows, what’s happening with you all in Dagestan? Is it true the riot cops want to put the squeeze on you? If that’s the way it is, I suggest humping it down there to support the guys.
FRTD: We could do that, but they won’t let us through if we drive in a convoy. We need to think about what to do without setting ourselves up.
Virtually no outside talk is permitted on the Zello channel. Anyone who is suspected of being a provocateur is immediately blocked. The strikers also use the social networks WhatsApp and Facebook.
“Within a year and a half, we have managed to rally an insane number of people around our flag. By and large, the alliance jelled on a professional basis,” says Bazhutin. “Communicating through social networks has really helped us. The guys even knew better than I did what was happened when I arrested. I didn’t know the police were going to release me, but they already knew.”
“Guys from other regions called me today. They had heard the riot cops in Dagestan were planning to disperse the strikers. They promised me that, if this were true, they would come and support them and prevent a clash,” says Mallamagomedov, echoing Bazhutin. “The strikers have been getting vigorous support from taxi drivers and van drivers. They don’t picket all day, but they show up often, bring us food and drinks, and give us pep talks. The talk on the social networks is that now they’re testing the system on large vehicles. Small-tonnage vehicles will be the next step, and then passenger vehicles.”
Digging Ditches and Dismantling Rails: Means of Combating the Strikers
The strike has been hindered not only by the arrests of activists. In one village, the authorities were especially creative. The truckers named the day when they would leave the village and head off to the strike camp. They would have to drive over a railway crossing to do this. In the morning, the eighteen-wheelers arrived at the crossing, and the drivers discovered the rails had been dismantled overnight, cutting off their only way out of the village.
In Rostov Region, the authorities dug a deep ditch around the parking lot where the strikers had gathered, referring to it as “emergency repairs.”
Mallamagomedov has been detained by law enforcement several times. In January 2016, Dagestan’s truckers met to discuss their common problems.
“We decided to establish our own association in the Republic of Dagestan. I was elected leader. After the meeting, I was put on the wanted list, although I wasn’t informed of this. On the Dagestan-Kalmykia border, I was forced to get off a bus and had to hitchhike home. Since then, I haven’t been able to visit Dagestan safely. I was placed on the list of extremists. When I call the police and tell them to take me off the list of extremists, because they know it’s not true, they promise they’ll take me off the list, but I’m still wanted.”
On April 5, Mallamagomedov was immediately picked up by police after a press conference in Moscow. Two men in plain clothes, who introduced themselves as criminal investigators, put Mallamagomedov in a car without plates and took him to an unknown destination. According to him, a case against him was cooked up in August 2016, when he was involved in a farmers’ tractor convoy in Rostov Region. The court order handed to Mallamagomedov on April 5 says he should have been jailed for ten days for an administrative offense, but he was released the evening of the same day. He doesn’t know why he was released, but says his attorney would be appealing to the court’s decision to sentence him to ten days in jail.
“My entire family—my two brothers and my father—are truckers,” says Mallamagomedov. “Several days ago, people came to my father’s house and demanded he sign a paper saying he would not be involved in the strike. ‘I undertake to attend all protests and rallies organized in support of the people,’ my father wrote on that paper.”
* On Monday, RBC reported that Russian federal communications and media watchdog Roskomnadzor would block the free walkie-talkie app Zello within twenty-four hours.
“What is Basil Saying? Where is Oversize Lyokha? And How is Platform Trailer Vadim?” Kommersant Explored How Truckers Are Convoying to the Moscow Ring Road to Protest
Alexander Chernykh and Katerina Shcherbakova
December 3, 2015 Kommersant
The protests by truckers that have taken place over the past three weeks because of the introduction of the Plato payment system are nearing their climax. On Thursday, drivers around the counters waited for President Putin to mention their problems and promise to get to the bottom of them in his annual Address to the Federal Assembly. When this did not happen, truckers begin forming the convoys that will attempt to travel to Moscow and block the Moscow Ring Road.
The Meeting Place Must Be Changed
The protesting truckers should have been in Moscow a few days ago, but the traffic police have been successfully countering them all week. Nationwide, traffic cops have been stop suspicious drivers at every post, checking their documents for several hours, looking for explosives or narcotics in their cargo, fining them for not having first-aid kits and fire extinguishers, and simply turning the most active of them around. This has seriously complicated coordination of the protests: several times, police have shown up right at secret meeting places. To learn the location of another such spot, we had to spend two nights in an online dialogue to convince suspicious drivers that we were reliable. Ultimately, our source did send us a telephone number, a contact name, and the address of a small roadside cafe around 200 kilometers from Moscow. We were given strict instructions to not mention the exact location at all over the phone.
When we got there, it turned there was no more need for conspiracy: the drivers had been been made by the police the day before.
“They didn’t even hide,” smiling in amazement, says Viktor, a young trucker from Novgorod the Great. “I had thought I would never notice if I were being tailed. This business is not my thing. But in this case it is all very simple. That passenger vehicle over there arrived after us and has been sitting next to the cafe for a suspiciously long time. Then a Gazelle [light truck or van] with an antenna on its roof parked next to it.”
When the bored drivers decided to go for a ride in a passenger car, the suspicious automobile immediately pulled out behind them, tailed them for the duration of the trip, and then parked in the exact same place. After this, some of the drivers decided to take their trucks to another stop and drove toward Moscow, but within several kilometers they were all stopped by traffic cops, who asked where the convoy of trucks was headed.
“The guys thought they could outfox them. They said they were really going to Petersburg and were just looking the U-turn on the highways,” recounts one of the drivers who has stayed behind. “But the cops told them they would escort them to the regional border. So they traveled with a motorcade.”
A roadside cafe chockablock with truckers is an ordinary sight for those who travel federal highways at night. But this time the setting resembles a black-and-white Soviet film about revolutionary sailors and striking railway workers. Several drivers sit at a table in the corner and noisly discuss where protesters set out for Moscow and where they got stuck. The situation is aggravated by the fact that the protest has no unified leadership, truckers from different cities do not know each other, and communications between individual convoys have to be established right now.
Mysterious phrases break through the buzz of the conversation.
“What is Basil saying?”
“Where is Oversize Lyokha?
“How is Platform Trailer Vadim?”
“He says he has thirty platform trailers behind him.”
“We are confused ourselves,” gaily remarks Viktor to universal laughter. “We are confused about the highways, the days of the week, and about life in general.”
Communication between the convoys is maintained by delegates, trucker drivers who have got behind the wheel of passenger cars to get past the traffic police posts.
“Andryukha traveled to the Don Highway and talked with the groups [of truckers] parked there. In some places there were a hundred trucks, in other places, thirty,” explains Vova, a well-built man in a sweater. “We have to get the lay of the land, to understand how many trucks in all are planning to convoy and what people’s moods are. Meaning the protest movement is looping back on itself. Tonight, everyone should be on the line so that the coordination is tighter the closer we get to Moscow.”
No one knows the exact number of protesters involved, even the date is still under question, but all the truckers know what they have to do: get to the Moscow Ring Road on Saturday, get into the far right lane, and reduce speed to the minimum allowed.
“Picture this. At the same time, we drive onto the ring from different directions and take up positions in our rightful lanes, one and two,” describes Vova, his eyes blazing. “And our Moscow activists switch to passenger vehicles and driver alongside us in lanes three, four, and five. You thus end up with a giant snail: five lanes on the Moscow Ring Road in both directions. And in Moscow, two such snails are enough for everything to short circuit and grind to a halt,” he says, smiling proudly.
The truckers do not know what they will do next.
Heavy Duty Arithmetic
The date when the snail was to crawl on the Moscow Ring Road has been postponed several times. Now the truckers have seemingly come to a final agreement. On Thursday (December 3, 2015) at noon, they will watch President Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly.
“This whole time, nobody has reported about us and our demands, neither Channel One nor NTV,” Victor says with resentment in his voice. “Only the Internet has written about us, but radio and TV have been silent. We are waiting for the address in order to see whether Putin knows about the problem or not, whether he intends to do something or whether we are ‘uninteresting’ to him.”
“I think he doesn’t decide such issues. It is all done for him. Well yeah, the Rotenbergs are his friends. But the law was passed while Medvedev was still president, and he signed this ‘rubbish.’ Maybe Putin just does not have all the information,” says a young driver, a little haltingly.
“Personally, I am fed up with this uncertainty,” wearily says a very thin young man with close-cropped hair as he approaches the table. He is Alexander, a convoy delegate who recently returned from Rostov. It is evident he can barely stand on his feet from lack of sleep, but he shakes hands with everyone and sits down at the table.
“Putin should say it clearly: pay, guys. That is what we have decided and we are not going to change it. It would be good if he came out to the people and told them straight in the eye.”
“And then what?”
“Then I’ll sell my truck, pay off my loans, and go live in some other country.”
Currently, Plato charges 1.53 rubles per kilometer, but beginning in March of next year this rate will double, to 3.06 rubles per kilometer. Self-employed truckers are completely certain that the new toll system will bankrupt them within a few months. To prove this, they discuss their incomes and expenses in detail, citing figures.
“Well, look. A freight run between Petersburg and Moscow costs 36 to 40 thousand rubles. This is considered a very good rate for a round-trip run,” says Viktor. “But almost 20 thousand rubles of this sum goes for fuel. The exact figure depends on the truck. European trucks use less fuel; American trucks use more. Russian trucks use even more.”
On the road, truckers need to fuel up themselves.
“You can see yourselves what the prices are like in the cafes. You go into eat and you spend no less than 300 rubles, sometimes a whole 500 rubles. You run up a food bill of no less than two or two and half thousand rubles during a run.”
A run lasts from three to five days. Moscow is closed at night to trucks, so they often have to idle on the approach to the capital.
“As a result, I have one, at most two runs a week,” says Viktor. “Excluding fuel and food I make 16 to 18 thousand rubles per run. And that is if nothing has broken down on the road. It can happen that you run over a piece of metal and burst a tire. Then you hand over that 18 thousand for repairs. You haven’t been home for an entire week, and you show up with no money.”
In addition, there are monthly expenses on routine maintenance of the truck—topping up the oil, making small, preventive repairs—whose costs come to about 20% of the fuel consumed over a month.
“I also pay 40 thousand a year in motor vehicle taxes,” the drivers says, bending his fingers. “Plus around six thousand for insurance. And I am registered in Novgorod Region, where the rates are tiny. Vovka pays twice as much in Leningrad Region.”
Vovka nods in agreement.
“And there is the excise tax for fuel, seven rubles a liter,” continues Viktor. “And I also have to pay for vehicle inspection, tire replacement, and all expendable supplies. We all here are just barely earning the minimum, and they are trying to finish us off with a new tax.”
According to Viktor, he puts between 100,000 and 150,000 kilometers a year on his truck.
“Next year, the toll will be 3.06 rubles [per kilometer],” the trucker reminds us. “So I will have to pay at least 400 thousand rubles [approx. 5,500 euros at current exchange rates] to the Rotenbergs. Meaning to Plato.”
The truckers have no idea where they will get the money. Officials at the Ministry of Transportation have tried to persuade them that their wallets will not suffer because their customers will end up paying the difference.
“Yeah, the customer will pay me more, but he will raise his prices. I will go into his store and pay more,” says Viktor, shrugging.
In addition, the Ministry of Transportation has not taken into account the fact that truckers have to run empty for many kilometers.
“I live in Novgorod the Great. It is a small city. We have nothing to transport,” says the trucker. “The largest freight turnover is between Moscow and Petersburg. For me to get to a customer in Petersburg I have to travel 200 kilometers, mileage I pay out of my own pockets. Dropping by home is 200 kilometers there and 200 kilometers back. And so it goes every time.”
“I am from Tver. We have work for a fifth of our drivers at most. Everybody else goes to Moscow or Petersburg,” confirms the man sitting next to him at the table.
“Listen, but even if you are traveling empty, you are still damaging the road, no?” I ask.
The truckers eye me suspiciously. Stating that trucks have negative impact on the road surface is a grievous heresy to them.
“Look at the ring roads in Moscow and Petersburg,” they argue. “Cargo vehicles are forbidden from driving beyond the second lane. So what is the lowdown? In the left lanes, where only passenger vehicles travels, the ruts are much deeper and the bumps bigger than in the lanes where trucks travel.”
“And most importantly, what are we paying for?” asks Alexander. “I traveled though Totma just now, the snow was coming down, and they were putting down asphalt? Right under the snow, can you imagine? And they are demanding money from us for this.”
And yet the drivers point out that Platon will be a blow not just for them but for all of small business. Alexander quietly tells us about a small furniture factory in Saratov owned by three young men his age. The factory used to send three truckloads a day to stores in Moscow and Petersburg, but in recent months, they have been sending three truckloads a week.
“They say that because of the crisis all their supplies have become more expensive,” recounts Alexander. “The parts and the leatherette are from China, their furniture has become more expensive, and people don’t want to buy it at the new prices.”
If the factory now has to pay its driver an additonal five or six thousand rubles for each run, it will simply go bust.
“And it is local people who work there, not Uzbeks. I have talked to them. They make 40 to 50 thousand rubles a month, good money. I went into the cafeteria, and there you can eat for fifty rubles, without a markup,” says Alexander. “Who is going to win if the factor closes and dozens of people lose their jobs? Who wants that?”
“That is why we private drivers are so worried< he says, turning to me. “We see our customers, talk with them, and realize that many of them will just not be able to cope. This road toll will finish them off.”
“Well, what are we all going to do?” Viktor asks angrily from the other end of the table. “My daughter is five months old. My wife is taking care of her and cannot work for now. And my wife has a problem with her milk, she has been underfeeding her. We have been buying dry milk now. A can costs 1,200 rubles and lasts for a week. Figure out how much that comes to for a month.”
“I don’t mean this is such an unbearable amount,” he continues with such fervor it immediately becomes clear that this is big money, why hide it? “But it’s another fifteen hundred for diapers. Then it’s something else, and something else again. Now it’s this Plato,” he says angrily. “What am I supposed to? What are we supposed to do now? Where do we go? To be honest, all we know how to do is drive trucks.”
The other truckers look at him in silence.
An eighteen-wheeler slowly passes the window.
“There is another one driving under the black flag,” someone at the table scornfully utters. “Profiting at our expense, the bugger.”
Due to the fact that some drivers are involved in the protests, there has been a deficit of free trucks in recent weeks. Customers have begun offering two times as much for runs, and many private drivers have gladly agreed to haul their goods. But, in order to save money, they also have not installed the Plato system. The striking truckers regularly ridicule them on CB radio, but they prefer to remain silent.
“Well, so what should we call them?” one of the drivers asks me indigndantl. “Strikebreakers? What kind of breakers are they? They’re out-and-out ‘reptiles’ is what they are!”
Viktor recounts how he recently quarreled with his father-in-law, who is also a truck driver, but said that resistance was useless and installed the Plato system.
“The war hadn’t even begun, and he had already surrendered,” said the driver, outraged. “I told him so. I said, ‘You are my enemy, and I don’t want to know you.”
“You remember how Stalin didn’t free his son from the Germans?” Victor asks unexpectedly. “Well, I thought that if Stalin did not spare his son, then why the hell did I need such a father-in-law. The boys here with me, they are my family.”
The Road to the Moscow Ring Road
Late at night, most of the drivers disperse to their trucks to sleep. Those who are participating as passengers stay up to drink with stringer photographers who have shown up from somewhere. The whole time well-built men drink vodka sourly at the next table. Suddenly, one of them approaches the drivers and screams at a photographer, allegedly, for taking a picture of him. The situation becomes heated instantly. The strangers began pushing and challenging the other men to “come outside and talk.”
“They look like titushky,” says one of the truckers. “We saw them today. They were hanging around that car that has been following us. Now they’ll start a fight, and the cops will show up and detain everyone.”
“No, they’re just drunks,” his comrade disagrees with him. “But it’s unpleasant all the same.”
A fight has already begun outside, and the drivers advise all outsiders to leave the cafe until morning. We go to warm up in the truck of Valera, a calm 49-year-0ld man who proudly tells us he has been driving big rigs since 1987.
“Take off your shoes and come in. We’re going drink tea now,” he cordially invites us into the cab of his truck as if it were a flat.
Hearing about the drunken comrades, he shakes his head disapprovingly.
“We are already losing soldiers on the way to Moscow.”
Valera ignites a small burner and puts a tiny metal teapot on it. As the water heats up, we thaw in the warmth and inspect the cab.
“I’ll have to sell the truck now,” the middle-aged driver says softly. “Although who wants it? I’ll get kopecks for it. Yes, it’s old, but I bought it that way on purpose, then repaired it myself. I am good with my hands.”
I ask him why private truckers would rather leave their jobs than work for a haulage company.
“A comrade of mine worked for a company. He made 50 thousand rubles a month,” Valera drily replies. “Only he spent one or two days at home a month. He gets back to Petersburg from a run, leaves his truck at the boss’s lot, gets on a commuter train, rides seventy kilometers, spends the night at home, and in the morning gets a call telling him to come in right away. Is that a life? I cannot take that anymore, I’m too old. And nobody can take it. That is why almost 80% of long-haul drivers are private drivers or tiny individual entrepreneurs who own a couple of trucks.”
We drink hot tea as Valera unfolds the sleeping berth.
“We all realize, of course, that the government suddenly needed money,” he says as we part. “We have got the turmoil in Syria, and missiles also cost money. But MPs should find other reserves to pay for this, not pay for it at our expense.”
In the morning, the drivers sleepily gather for a smoke next to their trucks.
“Policemen approached us last night and warned that everyone would be stopped at the nearest Road Patrol Service post and charged with extremism,” one of them grimly recounts.
“Come on, he was pulling your leg. What kind of extremists are we?” a comrade responds to him incredulously.
“Well, maybe he was kidding, but it is unpleasant in any case,” concludes a third driver.
While the drivers gather in the cafe, where they have planned to watch the president’s speech together, we drive to a Road Patrol Service post.
“We are not looking for any extremism here,” the police commander answers firmly as his subordinates snatch trucks and semis from the stream of traffic with waves of their batons.
“We are just in the midst of Operation Anti-Terror, and we are selectively checking all vehicles,” he explains in an official tone before adjusting a young policeman’s sagging reflective vest and walking away.
The policemen at the post copy down the license numbers and passport details of the truck drivers.
“Are you waiting for the anti-Platonists?” asks one of the policeman, unable to contain himself. “They won’t make it here. They will be stopped before they get here.”
Ten minutes before the start of the broadcast, the drivers suddenly change their location and drive a couple of kilometers to the next cafe, where about a dozen truckers are already sitting. The drivers silently listen to the president. They refrain from commenting on his speech, but with each passing minute they lose more and more interest in it. When the head of state begins talking about the problems of villagers, the drivers start telephoning their comrades and discussing different routes to Moscow.
Petersburg Truckers Say No to Plato David Frenkel
Special to the Russian Reader
November 27, 2015
On November 24, Petersburg truckers joined protests against the new levies imposed heavy tonnage cargo trucks known as the Plato payment system, which have sparked unprecedented work stoppages and other protests by Russian truckers nationwide.
Alexander Rastorguyev, leader of the TIGR (Association of Go-Getting Russian Citizens) movement, and Sergei Gulyayev, an ex-deputy of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly, both known for their opposition politics, inspired local truckers to launch a “snail” protest convoy.
The truckers took off in two separate convoys on parallel streets, Moscow Highway and Sofia Street, at 11 a.m. Shortly afterwards, another group of trucks joined them, increasing the number of slowly moving trucks to three hundred.
The truckers held a spontaneous rally on Sofia Street, where Rastorguyev urged them to keep driving to the Smolny, Petersburg city hall, where the authorities would “listen to them.”
During the rally, a tire was set on fire, an obvious reference to the Euromaidan protests.
The truckers slowly moved onto the Petersburg Ring Road, paralyzing traffic in the streets. The convoy was led by a group of cars plastered with anti-Plato posters. Traffic police regularly stopped the drivers, although no one was detained.
While the truckers made their way to the Smolny, authorities negotiated with protest leaders. The authorities warned the trucks would paralyze the downtown and suggested that truckers choose six delegates to negotiate with a deputy governor in his office another part of the downtown.
The truckers, however, did not want to elect delegates. They wanted a meeting directly with authorities at the Smolny and as an entire group.
Around thirty truckers finally reached the gates to the Smolny, although they had to leave their trucks on the other side of the Neva River. They gathered around the entrance and waited for officials to come out and negotiate with them. They waited in vain.
They stood and talked among themselves for about an hour until police arrived. A police officer demanded they disperse and organize a legal rally instead. Claiming they had not “come for a revolution,” they decided to give the authorities a chance, promising to organize a snail convoy to Moscow if their demands were not fulfilled in the coming days.
All photos by and courtesy of David Frenkel
Read my previous posts on the new Plato cargo haulage levy system and protests by Russian truckers:
“Soon the whole country will work for the Rotenbergs”
November 25, 2015 Rosbalt
Long-haul truckers have continued their protests against the Plato system in Russia. Truckers are outraged by new tolls on federal highways and are determined to have them abolished. In the Northern Capital, drivers got all the way to the Smolny [Petersburg city hall], but a dialogue with the authorities did not take place there. Private entrepreneurs and veteran truckers Oleg Krutskikh and Alexei Zhatko told Rosbalt about why they are willing to fight to the last, what they will do in the event of failure, and what their families think about their protest.
How did you start working as truckers?
Oleg: I began driving when I got out of the army, in 1998 or 1999. My dad was a driver, and I followed in his footsteps. You know how it is: army brats are drawn to the army. Well, sons of truckers are drawn to trucking. First, I drove a KamAZ, then a MAZ. I am from the Voronezh Region. In the 2000s, my family and I moved to Petersburg. I spent ten years behind the wheel of cargo trucks, then I became an entrepreneur, although I have kept driving myself.
Alexei: I am originally from the Stavropol Territory. I moved to Petersburg in 1999. I moved my father here. He is a trucker. At first, I worked as a dispatcher in a container company. Then I took a truck from this company to break in. I put Dad behind the wheel, and he went to work. Then I started to drive myself and I bought several trucks.
It was profitable to work in freight haulage then, right?
Oleg: Yes, in the no-holds-barred nineties and noughties, you got paid in cash in dollars. A round trip within the city cost $100, to Moscow, $850–950. Then we were forced to legalize, which was the right thing to do. We started paying taxes. We became self-employed entrepreneurs or turned our operations into limited liability companies. Until 2008, we did more or less all right. We made enough to pay for fuel and pay our drivers. The oil flowed abroad, and the government had enough money both for itself and for people, to throw them some bones. Then the dollar rose, the price of spare parts soared, and there was less work. Depreciation amounts to a lot of money in Russia, and you are left with peanuts. Basically, we cannot afford to replace our vehicle fleets.
Alexei: From 2002 to 2008, when the tax system was semi-gray and payments were made in cash, I bought trucks. I had eight of them. Subsequently, every year I would cut one truck to be able to repair the rest. Now I have one heavy transport truck left. I used to have these issues. I would drive to the service center and they would replace all the bad parts. You won’t believe me, but now I know which city and which demo yard has the cheapest spare parts. What is a demo yard? A place that sells used parts. That means we are not running 100% safe on the road anymore. Even if a part has 20% wear and tear, your safety is lower.
Oleg: The point is that incomes have fallen almost to zero. Basically, [the authorities] want to take the shirt off our backs, but we are refusing to budge. We are not earning anything nowadays. We have ground to a halt and are idling.
Have you been involved in the protests for long?
Oleg: Since November 11.
Alexei: I was out of town for two months. I left in August, and when I got back these new developments had emerged. I was forced to leave the truck in Krasnodar and fly here. It was cheaper. I have not worked since November 15.
The stance of the authorities is clear. Long-haul truckers must pay the damages the big rigs cause to federal highways.
Alexei: I really do not understand this. If the permissible weight is forty tons, how can I cause damage to roads? I pay motor vehicle tax and excise duties. I cannot cause more damage than is stipulated by the State Standards. But I am told that I cause more damage than I should anyway.
Nobody knows how the motor vehicle tax is spent. Take a look at our roads. The M10 from Petersburg to Moscow is more or less okay. The M7, to Tatarstan, is good, and the M4 is not bad. There are no other [decent] roads [in Russia]. Take, for example, the M5. The section from Syzran to Penza is a disaster. From Samara almost to Ufa there are two hundred-odd kilometers that we travel at a snail’s pace. And then they say they are closing the highway because it has drifted. In fact, they just do not plow the road, and traffic moves slowly. You cannot climb hills or get up to speed. So the authorities decide to close the whole thing. It is easier for them.
Oleg: Or take a look at how much the toll roads cost. They have now opened a road near Vishny Volochyok to Moscow. It is 920 rubles one-way, meaning nearly 2,000 rubles round trip [approx. 28 euros]. The toll on the M11 is 1,200 rubles. So a round trip has gone up by 4,000 rubles. And I have not figured in the tolls on the Western High-Speed Diameter. Plus, the Plato system costs around 2,000 rubles until March, then it will cost 5,000 rubles. The rise in expenses due to toll roads will come to around 9,000 rubles. That is a 25% increase.
Look, a 25% rise in freight haulage costs means that all the prices in the shops will go up. Old ladies and pensioners will bear the brunt. I think the authorities are keen to put tolls on absolutely all roads. For example, Leningrad Region Governor Drozdenko said that regional roads should be toll roads, too. They have gone after the truckers first, because we could be accused of damaging the roads. If they imposed this law on all drivers at once, it would not be just us who were out protesting. Others would come have out as well.
Do you think the authorities were afraid of mass protests?
Oleg: I think they wanted to get us to this point stage by stage. At first, they will work out the bugs on us, and then gradually incorporate everyone else.
It will come to the point where drivers of passenger cars will pay the duty as well. If we do not squash it and stop it, the entire country will work for the Rotenbergs. The burden will fall on everyone’s shoulder. We will be like slaves. They will legally be able to use us.
Alexei: Try and understand the trucker’s mindset. I like my job because I am as free as the wind. If I want to go Novosibirsk, I go there. Tomorrow, I might want to go to Krasnodar. It is a kind of freedom. But now they are trying to put a noose around my neck, and they can always tighten it. I find myself in Novosibirsk, for example. They tighten the noose, and I cannot make it back home. My only choice would be to abandon everything, sell the truck, and get home on some other form of transport. So I don’t want this noose. But long-haul truckers are a kind of caste who are no strangers to hardship. Our lifestyle differs little from that of a dog. We live in our rigs like a dog in a kennel. Just like a dog pisses on the wheel, so do we. So if truckers do end up moving on Moscow [in protest] that will not be a problem. Living in our rigs for a month near Moscow would be easier than pie.
You have not even tried to register on the Plato system?
Alexei: Why should I? I don’t recognize it and I am not planning to recognize it.
It would be easier for me to run my rig downtown sometime, drive it up to the Smolny ignoring all the traffic warning signs, and set fire to it.
What is the point of working under such a system? I am ashamed for the government. I used to idolize Medvedev. I used to respect him. Three or four years ago, he said that we would add a tax of seven rubles to the price of fuel and abolish the motor vehicle tax. I was really happy about this. I thought, let it be that way. I did not quite get it, but it would be simpler for me than running to the state savings bank all the time to pay the taxes and fees. But how has it all turned out?
Now they are promising to reduce the fines, but there is not a single regulatory document backing this promise up. You phone Rosavtodor (the Russian Federal Road Agency), and [they tell you] the rates on the Plato website are still in effect. How is that? My idol Dmitry Medvedev says one thing, but something else happens. This has political implications. But still, it is painful, what can I say.
I understand that you don’t want to associate your protests with politics?
Oleg: This is our life. We are fighting for it, for the lives of our families and their families.
Alexei: We don’t need revolutions and upheavals, because there are problems after all upheavals, and the economy will have to recover. There won’t be any work, and the country will suffer from poverty. We don’t want that.
And what is the difference? One group of people is now in power, then people just like them will take over. The only thing I do not understand is why a barrel of oil cost eight dollars in the 1990s, and now it costs over forty dollars, but we still do not have enough money. And why in the 1990s, if someone in the government admitted his mistakes, he offered his resignation, but nowadays an official who has goofed up big time says, “Well, that didn’t work out. Sorry, but I am going to keep working.”
Oleg: And what happened with [former Russian defense minister] Serdyukov? How could you, guys? They spit in the country’s face. If they spit in the Investigative Committee’s face, who are we truckers? I won’t be surprised if [the powers that be] do not react to us at all, if they just have the riot police crush us.
You think they could start cracking down on the protests using the riot police?
Oleg: For now we are being treated more or less decently. Time will tell.
What is the news from the field? Do you know anything about how the events have affected businesses in Russia?
Alexei: The first [city] to sound the alarm has been Tyumen. They produce their own bread and milk, but everything else is shipped in. The produce will not last long. In Volgograd, a glass factory has temporarily shut down. But here I am thinking: many factories are certainly owned by politicians, by MPs. Ordinary people would not own them. And this is a blow to the owners. So while we are not driving, there should be some movement on the part of our rulers.
According to my information, there are four ferries at a standstill in Novorossiysk, and New Year’s is around the corner. In Derbent, there are many train cars loaded with persimmons, tangerines, and pomegranates that are not going anywhere. They simply have nowhere to offload the produce there. The persimmons arrive there in ordinary heated freight cars and cannot be stored for long. I think if we continue the stoppage, then it will not just be a protest—
But a strike, rather.
Alexei: It is a strike. We cannot go back on the roads. We have been cornered. If things go on like this, it will be worse.
Approximately how much do you pay in taxes per year?
Oleg: I did the calculations for seven trucks. We burn through about 30 tons of diesel a month. Multiply that by 7 rubles, and it comes to 210,000 rubles a month, or two and half million rubles a year. Plus there is the motor vehicle tax and the taxes for individual entrepreneurships and limited liability companies. All in all, it comes to around three and a half million rubles [approx. 50,000 euros]. Meaning that if Plato goes online, we will probably bite the dust, and the treasury will come up three and a half million rubles short. If you do the math, that amounts to good pensions for twenty-eight old ladies or tiny pensions for fifty old ladies. So all those old ladies will lose their pensions. The people who work for me will end up at the unemployment office, and the state will have to cut them unemployment checks.
The truckers have shown all Russians a great example of solidarity. Basically, people from different parts of the country have united to fight for their rights.
Alexei: Despite the fact that the media have been blacking us out, all of us—our groups of drivers and our dispatchers—have been getting the message out. I have lots of dispatchers who have been explaining to customers that they are not going hand over loads to anyone, because we are all in solidarity, because each of us has his trucks out there. When I was driving from Novorossiysk to Krasnodar to store my truck in the lot there, a traffic cop stopped me. He asked where I was going. I explained I was going to a lot, then flying to Petersburg.
That was a traffic cop who asked me. What does this tell us? That the traffic police, too, probably have their own trucks out there or friends and acquaintances. They support the truckers, but they have their orders. I myself am a former military man. Everyone understands everything perfectly.
As far as I know, the police have so far not been actively hindering the protests. In Petersburg, for example, the protesters got off with small fines.
Alexei: No, their objective is to break up the convoys of trucks.
Are you not afraid of provocations?
Oleg: We got together to figure out how we would run our protests, and there was immediately news on the web that Oleg Krutskikh was an accomplice of Navalny and all. Someone started writing to truckers that there would be no protest, that it had been called off. A specific agency is working against us.
Alexei: People get SMS alerts that a protest will not take place. That so-and-so works for Navalny and is trying to start a commotion.
What do you think about United Russia MP Yevgeny Fyodorov’s statement? He said you were protesting “at the behest of the United States.”
Alexei: That is insane. Perhaps the man has some problems. Maybe he reads too much about America. There is no trace of commonsense audible or visible in what he said.
Oleg: I would like to appeal to you as a member of the media. 80% of the news is about Egypt and Syria. Guys, we have so many problems in our own country that at least 95% of the population could care less what is happening abroad. Only the 5% who have business abroad care. I have a huge request for you all: tell us, the 95%, about Russia. When things have been put to right in Russia, maybe you can tell us about life in other countries.
Alexei: I guess then it will be difficult for someone to raising his popularity rating. Showmen dominate politics in our country. More than anything they want good ratings, not to solve the major problems within the country.
I really am unconcerned about what is going down in Donetsk when I have nothing to eat at home. I have to feed my own people. I have two children, after all. I have been shut down for two weeks, and I realize that my wallet is empty.
Will your reserves last long enough to keep off the road like this?
Alexei: It doesn’t matter. We will go take out a loan then. Clearly, we won’t be able to pay it back. But we do not have much of a choice. We have to live.
So you are going hold out to the last, then?
Alexei and Oleg: We will hold out to the last. We have nothing to lose. We cannot go back out on the road: we will be fined.
How have your families reacted to your involvement in the truckers’ protests?
Alexei: My family has never been involved in politics. My spouse, although I do not share information with her, sees and understands everything perfectly well. She is a speech therapist and a teacher, who gets paid no more than fifteen thousand rubles a month [approx. 215 euros]. Yet she tells me I should quit this business. But I cannot quit my job. This is a lifestyle.
Oleg: It would be hard now to retrain to do some other job. As for the protests, my involvement has been spontaneous. They say I am an activist. I am no activist. I am just someone who generally likes the truth.
Everyone now involved in the protests are activists.
Alexei: Yeah, take any trucker. Any of us can be slapped with the charge of organizing a protest. Because all of us are on the telephone communicating.
We exchange telephone numbers at our encampments, and that has united us even more. But we have no leaders. All of us are organizers. We agree to meet by calling each other. One person passes the information on to the next person. The radio is our mass medium. All of us could be locked up as organizers.
In Dagestan, for example, it is not just Dagestanis who are attending the protests, but people from different regions. The guys at our encampment in Novorossiysk snapped and took off for Dagestan, because they knew it would be the hottest spot. That is how fast information spreads among our lot. And if the politicians think we are disorganized louts, they are wrong, although that is what many of them are saying.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Rosbalt