Ivan Davydov: The New Greatness Trial

new greatness.jpegDmitry Poletayev, Vyacheslav Kryukov, Ruslan Kostylenkov, and Pyotr Karamzin, defendants in the New Greatness trial, during a court hearing. Photo by Pyotr Kassin. Courtesy of Kommersant and Republic

Russia’s Most Important Trial: The New Greatness Case as a Model of Relations between State and Society
Ivan Davydov
Republic
July 11, 2019

The term “hybrid war” has been in vogue for a while. The folks on Russian TV, who long ago unlearned how to do anything good or, maybe, never knew how to do anything good constantly mention the “hybrid war against Russia.” The term is infectious. At any rate, I have the sense you could not coin a better phrase for describing the Russian state’s attitude toward Russian society.

The Russian state has been waging a hybrid war against Russian society, and it has also been a guerrilla war. It is as if the state has been hiding on the edge of the woods, lying in ambush, sometimes leaving the woods on forays to do something nasty, like hitting someone over the head with a billy club, fining someone, passing a law that defies common sense and threatens the populace or just blurting out something terrifying and stupid. Then it goes to ground in the woods again. The sound of steady chomping is audible and, occasionally, peals of happy laughter.

Russian society sometimes tries to fight back, of course. Actually, society exists only when it tries to fight back. When there is no fightback, there is no society, only confused, atomized individuals whom the “guerrillas,” happily chomping their food in the woods, consider food. Society rarely tries to fight back, and it scores victories even more rarely. This summer, it managed to drag reporter Ivan Golunov out of jail before the guerrillas could chew him up. I cannot recall any other victories.

Although I am mistaken. Last summer, for example, society secured house arrest for the two teenaged girls, Maria Dubovik and Anna Pavlikova, accused in the New Greatness case. They were nearly killed in remand prison, but they were finally released. There was a tidal wave of articles in the press, an angry buzz on the social networks, and a March of Mothers that the authorities decided not to disperse.

It is not clear why: the riot cops would have made short work of the mothers. The tough guys who constitute the rank and file of the OMON would have enjoyed beating up women armed with stuffed animals.

Even Margarita Simonyan emerged from the woods to shout something about the “serious people” in the Kremlin who cut short their summer holidays to make the right decisions. Then it was back to the woods, whence the steady sound of chomping and slurping could be heard.

I still cannot get used to the fact that we in Russia consider house arrest for the victims of police lawlessness a victory for our side and incredibly good luck. I mean to say I understand why people think this way, but I cannot get used to it.

And now all of them—Maria Dubovik, Anna Pavlikova, Vyacheslav Kryukov, Ruslan Kostylenkov, Sergei Gavrilov, Pyotr Karamzin, Maxim Roshchin, and Dmitry Poletayev—are on trial.

Pavel Rebrovsky and Rustam Rustamov have already been convicted. They made a deal with investigators and prosecutors before the case went to trial. They were sentenced to two and a half years in prison and two years probation, respectively.

It is not as if there is no buzz in society about the case, but it amounts to background noise at most. Our society is short of breath: it has enough air in its lungs to make one attempt at resistance. Meanwhile, amazing things have been happening at the trial.

Courtroom Miracles
In brief, the story is that young people who were not entirely happy with their lives shared their thoughts in chat rooms. (By the way, have you ever seen young people who were completely satisfied with their lives? Didn’t you feel like going out of your way to avoid them?)

A nice man emerged in their midst. He suggested they organize a group to fight for everything good and oppose everything bad. They met in real life a couple of times. Prompted by the nice man, they drafted a charter for their movement. The nice man, it transpired, was a police provocateur, and the members of the so-called New Greatness movement were detained by police, not without a certain amount of pomp and ceremony, right before the 2016 presidential election.

And how could the security services get by without pomp and fanfare? They had apprehended dangerous criminals and exposed an entire group of “extremists.” If you believe the case investigators, New Greatness were planning “mandatory participation in popular uprisings, revolutionary actions, [and] clashes with authorities of the current Russian regime.”

Can you imagine someone using the phrase “voluntary participation in popular uprisings”? Security services officers who specialize in such matters have decided to destroy the lives of these unfortunate young people. In fact, they have already destroyed them. But these same security services officers have a slippery grasp of Russian and are not terribly worried whether what they write makes any sense. The takeaway message is that the New Greatness kids have to be sent to prison whatever the cost and the words used to do it play an auxiliary role.

The goings-on at their trial leave no one in doubt that this is the point. None of the defendants has pleaded guilty. Pavel Rebrovsky testified against his friends as part of the pretrial deal he made with prosecutors. In court, he testified he had been promised probation, and so he had agreed to say what state investigators wanted him to say, not tell the court what had actually happened.

“You call me. Do you have Whatsapp? I’ll send you the testimony you need to give in court,” Investigator Anton Malyugin had said to Rebrovsky to encourage him.

I don’t know how to judge Rebrovsky’s actions. It is easy to feign you are an honorable person when you are not locked up in remand prison. Rebrovsky was locked up in remand prison. Nevertheless, the investigator pulled the simplest trick in the book on him. Rebrovsky was sentenced to actual prison time, not probation, but he had the guts to tell the truth in court.

Except the court does not want the truth. Prosecutor Alexandra Andreyeva petitioned the court to examine the witness again, and Judge Alexander Maslov granted her motion. Investigators now have the time they need to explain clearly to the defenseless Rebrovsky how wrong he was to do what he did and what happens to people who pull what he pulled so everything goes smoothly the second time around.

It is vital we know the names of all these people. They should become household names. We should not think of them as generic investigators, judges, and prosecutors, but as Case Investigator Anton Malyugin, Judge Alexander Maslov, and Prosecutor Alexandra Andreyeva, who pulled out all the stops to send these young people down on trumped-up charges.

Rustam Rustamov, whose testimony is also vital to the investigation’s case, mysteriously vanished the day he was scheduled to testify in court. He was in the court building, but he did not appear in court. Apparently, the prosecution decided not to risk putting him on the stand. There are also ways of making a person on probation realize that the desire to tell the truth can be quite costly. It is better to coach the witness properly. There is no hurry.

The Russian State’s Self-Defense
The whole story is quite pointed. The case has been cobbled together haphazardly. This was already clear last year, but now it has become completely obvious. No one plans to retreat, however. When the Russian state’s guerrillas come out of the woods, they always bag their prey. Otherwise, their prey might get funny ideas.

This is a story about decay, you see. It is not that Russia’s law enforcement agencies have nothing else to do. Unfortunately, there are real criminals aplenty. Nor have the Kremlin’s military adventures abroad been a panacea for terrorists. But it has been harder and harder for Russia’s law enforcers to find the time to deal with real criminals and real terrorists.

Recently, a friend’s elderly mother was taken to the cleaners by scammers. When he went to the police, they worked hard to persuade him there was no point even trying to investigate the crime. Everyone remembers the case of the serial poisoner in Moscow, who was released by police after he was detained by passersby. He was apprehended again only when a scandal erupted, the press got involved, and the big bosses voiced their outrage.

Who has the time to work on silly cases like that if you have been ordered to take down a reporter who has been snooping around? And why should you bother when you can “solve” a terrible crime you concocted in the first place and you also had the good sense to detain your homemade “extremists” right before an election?

All you have to do is remove one rotten log from this house for the whole thing to come tumbling down immediately. The Golunov case, which cost several police commanders their jobs, was an excellent illustration of this fact.

By the way, there are no suspects in the new Golunov case, which has been entrusted to the Russian Investigative Committee. The drugs planted themselves on the reporter. They were treacherous drugs. No wonder they say drugs are bad.

The investigators, the judge, and the prosecutor handling the New Greatness case understand this perfectly well. They will use all the means at their disposal to put away the defendants, most of whom have been locked up in remand prison for over a year. As they themselves like to say, it is a matter of honor or, simply put, a matter of self-defense. The investigators, the judge, and the prosecutor are defending themselves: if the case comes unglued, a scandal would be inevitable, and a scandal could cost them their cushy jobs. It would also do irreparable damage to the system, to the fabled woods, because the more such unhappy endings there are, the less comfortable it will be for the guerrillas to chow down in the woods.

This is a curious aspect of what I have been describing. When the current Russian authorities engage in obvious wrongdoing, they do not experience discomfort. Of course, they don’t: when they defend themselves in this way they only aggravate the injustice. The lives of villagers who are raped and pillaged by brigands hiding in a forest mean nothing to the brigands, naturally. What the big men of the woods do not like is noise. The sound of their own slurping is music to their ears. If a hullabaloo arises, they could lose the little things that make life in the woods so pleasant.

So, I would like to write that the New Greatness case is the most important criminal case in Russia at the moment. The lawlessness and injustice evinced by the Russian authorities have been obvious and flagrant. But there is also the Network case, whose takeaway message is that the FSB can torture anyone it does not like, and it is nearly legal for them to do it.

There is also the case of the Khachaturian sisters, in which the lesson is that “traditional values” are interpreted in Russia in a way that can tear society apart.

There is also the war on environmentalists who have been trying to prevent the opening of a giant landfill for garbage from Moscow near the town of Shies in Arkhangelsk Region.

And there is the case of Pskov journalist Svetlana Prokopieva.

Finally, there is a mountain of smaller cases, which are no less terrifying even though they have generated less buzz or no buzz at all.

The menu of the forest brothers is too extensive, while Russian society is short of breath, as I wrote earlier. All arguments about Russia’s future boil down to a simple question: are their appetites hearty enough to eat all of us? None of them have complained about a lack of appetite so far.

And yet it would be unfair not to mention Anna Narinskaya, Tatyana Lazareva, and the other women involved in March of Mothers, who have been forcing their way into the courtroom and supplying accounts of what has been going on there. This is no easy task: the Lyublino District Court simply lacks room, but the judge has refused to have the trial moved to another court.

Then there are the musicians (Alexei Kortnev, Boris Grebenshchikov, Andrei Makarevich, Roma Zver, Pyotr Nalich, Vasya Oblomov, Maxim Leonidov, and MANIZHA) who recorded a video with Lazareva in which they performed an old song by the group Chizh & Co. about the “commissar contagion” as a way to draw attention to the case.

Finally, there is the website Mediazona, which has scrupulously chronicled the deeds of Russia’s law enforcers. It has also attempted to make the investigators, the prosecutor, and the judge in the New Greatness case household names.

It says a lot about Russia that a news website wholly devoted to covering the lawlessness of so-called law enforcers can function here and enjoy well-deserved popularity. Thank you, colleagues.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Vyacheslav Lukichev: Interrogated for 36 Hours and Beaten

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Lawyer: Kaliningrad Anarchist Interrogated for 36 Hours and Beaten
OVD Info
November 8, 2018

Maria Bontsler, defense attorney of Kaliningrad anarchist Vyacheslav Lukichev, who has been charged with public vindication of terrorism on the internet, said her client had been beaten, according to a post published by Valentina Dekhtyarenko, manager of the human rights advocacy program at Open Russia, on her Telegram channel.

Bontsler claimed Lukichev had been beaten by six riot police (OMON) officers. She noted the police officers beat Lukichev in such a way as to leave no traces on the anarchist’s body. According to Bontsler, the beating occured on November 4, immediately after Lukichev was detained, in a room in which Lukichev’s [original,] state-appointed defense attorney was present.

Bontsler also claimed Lukichev had been interrogated for thirty-six hours.

Lukichev, 24, is suspected of publicly vindicating terrorism (a felony under Article 205.2 Part 2 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code) after allegedly publishing a screenshot of the suicide note allegedly left by [17-year-old Mikhail Zhlobitsky].

[Zhlobitsky] has been alleged to have bombed the FSB’s regional office in Arkhangelsk [on October 31], killing himself and injuring three FSB officers.

Several minutes before the blast, a message about the attack was posted on Telegram in the open chat channel Rebel Talk [Rech’ buntovshchika].

The authorities have been investigating the incident as a terrorist attack.

Investigators claim Lukichev published a post on the Telegram channel Prometheus [Prometei] in which he called [Zhlobitsky] a hero.

At a court hearing, Bontsler said the phrase had been taken out of context.

Political activists in Perm, Krasnodar, Arkhangelsk, and Arkhangelsk Region have said police officers came to their homes or they received summons to police stations in the wake of the October 31 attack.

On November 3, the home of Danil Pinzhenin, second secretary of the Sochi municipal Komsomol [Communist Youth League] committee, was searched by police in connection with the incident.

Translated by the Russian Reader. The article has been edited to make it more readable and informative.

Anti-Central Asian Migrant Worker Dragnet in Tula

uzbek cuisineRussian riot police (OMON) prepare to enter a business identified as “Uzbek Cuisine” in the Central Market area in Tula during yesterday’s “total spot checks.” Photo courtesy of Moskovsky Komsomolets in Tula

Unprecedented Document Checks in Tula: Migrant Workers Lined Up in Columns Many Meters Long
MK v Tule (Moskovsky Komsomolets in Tula)
October 20, 2018

Беспрецедентные проверки в Туле: мигрантов выстроили в многометровые колонны

The total checks of migrant workers in Tula have moved beyond the Central Market. According to Moskovsky Komsomolet in Tula‘s correspondent, law enforcers from the Tula Regional Office of the Interior Ministry, the riot police (OMON), the Rapid Deployment Special Force (SOBR), and the Russian National Guard have inspected the streets adjacent to the market.

In particular, visitors from the Asian republics [sic] were also checked on Pirogov and Kaminsky Streets. Law enforcers looked to see whether people had documents [sic], residence registration stamps, and work permits.

Approximately two hundred migrants workers were formed into a long column that grew longer by the minute. Checks for violations of immigration laws proceeded apace.

The total spot checks for illegals [sic] in Tula started at 10 a.m. on October 20, when law enforcers descended on the Khlebnaya Square area en masse. The entire market was cordoned off.

All photos courtesy of Moskovsky Komsomolets in Tula. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sergey Abashin and Valentina Chupik for the heads-up.

Migrant workers, most but not all of them hailing from the former Soviet Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, have been perfect scapegoats for the Putinist police state, which from day one (nearly twenty years ago) has increased its hold on public opinion through an endless series of semi-official campaigns against nefarious aliens and “national traitors.”

So-called law enforcement officers have long ago turned shaking down migrant workers—something literally every resident of every major city in Russia has seen with their own eyes thousands of times in recent years, but which they have “disappeared” along with most of society’s supposedly intractable problems—into a land office business, that is, a source of easy, quick cash.

In any case, as likely as not, most of the men shown in the photographs, above, probably had all the papers they needed to live and work legally in Russia, including residence registration papers and work permits. Unless they have temporary or permanent residence permits, they would have to renew these papers every three months in a process that is every bit as wasteful, time consuming, and humiliating as yesterday’s dragnet in Tula.

To add to their woes, the top brass of Russia’s dizzying of ever-proliferating, interwing, and competing law enforcement agencies and secret services regularly trot out cooked-up stats showing, allegedly, that migrant workers commit either an outsized proportion of all crimes in Russia or the majority of crimes. Human rights advocates can easily punch holes in these barefaced attempts to generate moral panics while simultaneously proving the police state’s continued indispensability, but these counterarguments rarely if ever get the audience enjoyed by Moskovsky Komsolomets, a mass-circulation national tabloid, based in Moscow, that for many years now has published local supplements in Russia’s numerous, far-flung regions.

Owned until 1991 by the Soviet Communist Youth League (Komsomol), Moskovsky Komsolets abandoned whatever socialist and international principles it had long ago, opting for sensationalism and high circulations. According to the BBC, the newspaper had an average issue readership of 1,215,000 in 2008, making it Russia’s second most read newspaper, after Argumenty i Fakty. Given its heavy internet and social media presence, those readership figures have certainly only gone up in the intervening years.

MK, as it usually styles itself nowadays, perhaps to make us forget about its humble socialist origins, was also identified in 2004 by the Sova Center and the Moscow Helsinki Group as the leading purveyor of hate speech amongst Russia’s national print media outlets. Certainly, yesterday’s “photo essay” in MK in Tula was an attempt to whip up a moral panic while boosting readership.

The newspaper, however, is not primarily responsible for the fact that Russian officialdom and to a certain extent, Russian society at large demonizes, terrorizes, and racially profiles the cheap, supposedly expendable immigrant workforce that keeps the perennially flailing Russian economy afloat.

If you want to learn more about the bigger picture when it comes to migrant workers in Russia, a story egregiously underreported by the international press and reported mostly in the sensationalist, racist manner, displayed above, by the Russian press, I would recommend the following articles, published on this website in the past year, plus Professor Sergey Abashin’s now-classic essay “Migrants and Movements in Central Asia,” published here three years ago. {TRR}

 

Riot Cops Raid Punk Rock Concert in Barnaul: “Freaks, Not Patriots”

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Riot Cops Raid Punk Rock Concert in Barnaul
OVD Info
April 28, 2018

Riot cops (OMON) raided a punk rock concert in Barnaul and made everyone in attendance lie face down on the floor, Angelina, who was at the concert, told OVD Info.

According to Angelina, all the concertgoers were searched. The young men were searched especially carefully. The young women were asked whether they were carrying weapons and banned substances. The riot cops gave every concertgoer a piece of paper marked with a number and forced them to say their name and address on camera while holding up their number.

Angelina added the riot cops were very rough with everyone.

The concertgoers were asked whether they were members of subcultures: punks, skinheads or some other group. The riot cops also said the concertgoers were all “freaks, not patriots.”

“There were at least six unidentified men who were telling the riot cops what to do. No one was able to figure out who they were. I remember one of them was named Oleg,” said Angelina.

The concert continued after the riot cops left. One juvenile male was taken to a police station where he signed a statement he had not used any banned substances, after which he was released.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader

Migrant Workers Clash with Russian National Guard in Tomsk

migration centerImmigration Center in Tomsk. Photo courtesy of tv2.today and segodnya.ua

“Inhumane, Wrong, but Nothing Can Be Done”: Migrant Workers on Clashes with the Russian National Guard in Tomsk
Roman Chertovskikh
Takie Dela
January 11, 2018

The Russian National Guard dispersed a crowd of migrant workers in Tomsk on January 9. Over 2,000 foreigners had paralyzed the work of the immigration center and refused to leave, after which security forces used cattle prods and batons against them. Why did it happen?

In 2018, Tomsk Region has received a quota of only a thousand temporary residence permits. Yet the permit is issued only once annually, setting off a brouhaha among foreigners. The queue for those applying for the permit formed on January 2. Eight hundred people were on the list, and they checked in every day. On the day the permits were to be issued, a huge crowd had gathered at the entrance to the immigration center, located on the Irkutsk Highway, by six in the morning. The queue included students at Tomsk universities and workers alike.

The immigration center opened at nine, but work ground to a halt at eleven-thirty. Having serviced only three hundred people, the center’s employees stopped seeing any more clients and declared an emergency. The Russian National Guardsmen and OMON riot cops who arrived at the scene pushed the foreigners back and blocked the entrance to the building.

“Riot Cops Disperse Mob of Migrant Workers in Tomsk with Cattle Prods.” Video published on YouTube, January 8, 2018 [sic], by vtomske

One Center Instead of Numerous Local Federal Migration Service Offices
Most of migrant workers consider policy makers in the presidential administration responsible for the incident. Whereas last year foreigners were served by various local offices of the Federal Migration Service (FMS), as of this year all of Tomsk Region [the sixteenth largest region in Russia, although not all of its land mass is habitable—TRR] is served by one center.

“Since the ninth [of January] I have been busy running round to various government offices, trying to find someone who could help me and other students. I have so far struck out. I have been trying to get a temporary residence permit for four years running. I always encountered queues and crowding, but this was the first time I witnessed such a nightmare,” says Günel, a Kazakhstani citizen and second-year grad student at Tomsk State University.

According to Günel, it is wrong to issue a thousand permits at the same time on the same day, although the young woman is not eager to condemn the actions of the police.

“I cannot say anything bad about the Russian National Guard and OMON riot police acted. They were doing their jobs, after all. I saw the cattle prods, and I saw them being used, but I did not notice the police beating anyone up, as has been written about a lot in the media instead of analyzing the causes of the situation. I was not in the crowd. To break through to the front door, you would have had to stop at nothing, pushing women and old men aside. It’s also hard to blame the people who generated the crush. They had been waiting for their permits for a year, and some of them had waited longer. There were young students in the queue, and ethnic Russians who had decided to return to their historic homeland. There were also a lot of people from other countries who need a temporary residence permit to avoid paying for a work permit every month. Basically, they could not care less about citizenship.”

Günel argues that a thousand temporary resident permits is much too few for Tomsk, so permits are obtained through personal connections from year to year. She does not believe it is possible to issue a thousand permits in two hours.

Unjustifiably Small Quotas
Seil, a Tomsk State University anthropology grad student from Kyrgyzstan and employee of the company Immigrant Service, argues the clashes were the consequence of administrative errors caused by the peculiarities of the quotas. Temporary residence permits are issued only in keeping with the demands of the labor market. If Tomsk Region needs a thousand foreign workers, it does not matter how many people come to the region over and above the thousand-person quota, and how many of these people are university students.

According to Seil, numerous immigrants, in fact, work in the city of Tomsk and Tomsk Region illegally, without a legal permit.

“Then why, I wonder, are we talking about the need for foreign labor and setting quotas on the number of laborers at the same time? Everyone knows the actual circumstances are extremely different from the circumstances on paper, but no one tries to change the status quo,” Seil says, outraged. “Unfortunately, we have to follow the regulations. It is inhumane, wrong, and ugly, but if 1,001 people come and apply for temporary residence permits when the quota is 1,000, nothing can be done for the ‘superfluous’ person.”

Seil argues it is not profitable for Russian state agencies to issue temporary residence permits, but those who have work permits are forced to pay 3,500 rubles [approx. 50 euros] a month in Tomsk Region.

“It is unprofitable, of course, for the state to lose this source of revenue. Tomsk Region makes several million [rubles?] a year from the tax on the work permit alone,” says Seil. “I’m certain that if the quotas were set so the numbers reflected the circumstances in the region, there would not be a huge difference between supply and demand, and emergencies would be prevented. Something similar happened last year. People nearly broke the door down, there was such a brouhaha.”

Seil condemns the actions taken by employees of the immigration center.

“Maybe an emergency really did occur, but why was it necessary to close the doors at 11:30 a.m.? They could have tried to resolve the difficulties. Employees at such institutions like to boast that if closing time is 6 p.m., they won’t work a minute later than 6 p.m. Sure, they wear uniforms [i.e., because the FMS was dissolved, and a new immigration entity was established within the Interior Ministry, that is, within the Russian national police force—TRR], but why treat people that way? They could have worked at least another ninety minutes, until lunch time, in order to take the situation down a notch.”

Quotas have been reduced nationwide in 2018, not only in Tomsk Region. In November 2017, the Russian government approved a quota that provided for only 90,360 temporary residence permits, which was 19,800 fewer permits than were allowed the previous year. In 2016, however, the quota was 125,900 temporary residence permits, and in 2017 it was 110,160.

According to a prognosis by Rosstat, Russia’s able-bodied population will have decreased by seven million people by 2025. A reduction like this cannot be compensated only by increasing the Russian population’s labor productivity and economic activity, so an influx of immigrants is necessary for economic growth.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Russia’s Independent Truckers Battle for Their Livelihood

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?

The strike in Dagestan. Photo courtesy of Milana Mazayeva/Takie Dela

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.”

Andrei Bazhutin. Photo courtesy of Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/TASS

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.

The strike in Dagestan, April 4. Photo courtesy of Milana Mazayeva/Takie Dela

“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?”

“No!”

Yakub Khujayev,  Dagestan’s deputy transport minister (holding folder), with striking truckers on April 4. Photo courtesy of Milana Mazayeva/Takie Dela

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.

A long-haul trucker during a protest rally against the Plato system. Gorki Highway, Noginsk District, Moscow Region. Photo courtesy of Ramil Sitdikov/RIA Novosti

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.”

Authorized protest rally of truckers against the Plato system, 27 March 2017, Chelyabinsk. Photo courtesy of Vadim Akhmetov/Ura.ru/TASS

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.

Translated by the Russian Reader