OPR Leader Andrei Bazhutin Picketing in Yoshkar-Ola: “Until 2015, I Also Sat and Watched TV”
Dmitry Lyubimov 7X7
August 1, 2017
The Association of Russian Carriers (OPR) picketed Nikonov Square in Yoshkar-Ola on July 31. The picket was part of a cross-country road rally, led by OPR chair and trucker Andrei Bazhutin. On June 14, he announced his candidacy for the Russian presidency. A 7X7 correspondent attended the picket.
Several picketers arrived on Nikonov Square at 7 p.m., bearing placards. Local OPR members held banners that were more informational, while road rally participants held up smaller banners sporting slogans such as “Plato Won’t Save the Roads, It’s Only for Oligarchs,” and “Stop Lying, Stealing, and Fighting Wars.”
Several members of the Popular Movement for Housing (NDZA) joined the road rally. Andrei Svistunov, civic activist and founder of an independent trade union, came out to support the truckers with colleagues and friends from the local Alexei Navalny campaign headquarters.
“We have never been in government, and we have no ties with any oligarchs. We’re ordinary people,” said Andrei Bazhutin. “We want to change the system. We don’t have rose-tinted glasses. We realize our road is a hard road. We’ll see what obstacles they throw in our path. Until 2015, I also sat and watched TV. I went on trucking runs and watched TV. Nowadays, I don’t watch it at all. I trust the internet, but only partly. Here we are, outside, among people. Everywhere the doors have been slammed shut in our face. Our association has tried to make contact with the government and the president’s staff. The people in our association are grown men, and they’ve been through their share of hot spots. We own our own big rigs. People know who we are, and that’s a good thing.”
The road rally has taken place in an abbreviated form. Previously, big rigs were involved in it, but now the convoy consists of only two cars and a minibus. Residents of Murmansk, Vologda, Tver, Moscow, and St. Petersburg have been involved in the rally. It has been paid for by participants themselves and private donors. During their meetings with the people in the towns where they stop, the truckers talk about different problems, including housing and hoodwinked investors in cooperative residential buildings.
“Initially, the Communists actively supported us. I met with Vladimir Rodin and Valery Rashkin, CPRF MPs in the State Duma. But they probably will not keep supporting us in the future, since we talk about the fact that Russia’s current party-based political system is rotten to the core. We are categorically opposed to the structure that has now been established in Russia. We believe the future lies with social movements, who must nominate grassroots candidates. That is probably the most positive know-how from the late-period Soviet Union that we can borrow. Power must rotate,” argues Bazhutin.
According to Bazhutin, the interests of the OPR and Alexei Navalny intersect, and the truckers are involved in his protest rallies. At pickets in Moscow, the drivers pasted placards with images of rubber duckies on their trucks. (The rubber ducky is a symbol of the “Don’t Call Him Dimon” campaign, whose supporters demand that authorities respond to the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s video exposé of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.)
Anti-Corruption Foundation, Don’t Call Him Dimon: Palaces, Yachts, and Vineyards—Dmitry Medvedev’s Secret Empire. YouTube video, with subtitles in English. Posted March 2, 2017, by Alexei Navalny
“2015 was the year of our camp in Khimki: our entire movement was launched there. Navalny filed a petition in the Commercial Court to reveal the terms of the public-private partnership agreement [establishing the Plato road tolls system], and many of our guys attended the hearing. Navalny wanted to visit our camp. But our goal was to keep the camp up and running, and if Navalny had shown up, we didn’t know whether it would have a positive or negative impact. So we turned him down. It led to a slight misunderstanding. Nowadays, we don’t say that Navalny has been going about things the wrong way. We see circumstances slightly differently. This concerns, for example, a united candidate from the opposition. He might not make it to the election. Those comrades over there [Bazhutin points to the law enforcement officers keeping an eye on the picket] might not allow it. If there is no such candidate, then what is left? We need candidates representing movements and grassroots organizations. Let ordinary folk nominate their own candidates. We shall see. Let them get themselves registered, and then we’ll decide whom to support,” said Bazhutin.
The truckers of the OPR have been on an indefinite strike since March 27. They have made six demands, including sacking the current government and expressing no confidence in the Russian president, to abolishing the Plato road tolls system and recalculating the excise tax on fuel.
The next stop on OPR’s road rally is Nizhny Novgorod.
All photos by Anna Pyatak and courtesy of 7X7. See the rest of her photos from the picket by clicking on the link to the original article, above. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up
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.
National Guard and Riot Cops Face Protesting Truckers in Dagestan
Andrei Dubrovsky and Yulia Reprintseva Novaya Gazeta
March 31, 2017
Russian National Guardsmen and riot police (OMON) have surrounded truckers protesting the Plato freight haulage road tolls system in the city of Manas in Dagestan, according to Mikhail Kurbatov, a member of the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR).
Anatoly Shilov, coordinator of the OPR’s St. Petersburg branch, said the troops had surrounded the truck drivers on the morning of March 31, and they have been kettled for several hours. No one has been allowed in or out.
According to an eyewitness, around 600 truck drivers are involved in the protest. Their trucks are stretched along the roadside of the Makhachkala-Baku Highway in Manas.
“About 200 law enforcement officers and riot police arrived on the scene. The troops deployed their vehicles along a one-kilometer stretch of the highway, completely surrounding us. They have blocked our way out, and we have been stuck here for about four hours. The riot are wearing masks with shields, but they have been behaving calmly. There have been no provocations against the truckers,” said the activist.
He added that one of the policemen had suggested to the truckers to peacefully settle the situation.
“We have been promised that lawmakers would come here tomorrow, and that we would talk with them. We will definitely be here until tomorrow,” he said.
Our source also emphasized the fact the trucker drivers had parked strictly on the roadside and were not interfering with traffic on the highway.
Earlier, the OPR announced a nationwide protest by truckers would take place on March 27. Protests were scheduled for at least nine Russian cities, according to the OPR’s website.
Organizers did not cancel the protest despite the fact that on March 24 Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree raising rates under the Plato system only by 25%, whereas earlier the rate was to have been doubled. Thus, as of April 15, the toll for trucks will be 1.91 rubles a kilometer, not 3.06 rubles a kilometer, as had been planned previously.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Alexei for the heads-up. See my previous post in this series on the ongoing struggle of independent Russian truckers to abolish the draconian Plato tolls system.
“I Peeled Myself from the TV and Saw the Light”: Why Ryazan Truckers Are Planning to Join the Nationwide Strike
Yekaterina Vulikh 7X7
March 22, 2017
In early March, a video was published in which Sergei Ovchinnikov, an activist and long-haul trucker with the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR), announced a nationwide strike that would kick off in fifty regions of the country on March 27. As Ovchinnikov said, the strike would continue until the government sat down at the negotiating table or most goods had disappeared from store shelves.
The truckers’ demands:
1. The Plato road tolls payment system should be abolished or reorganized for transit transport and turned over to the state.
2. The transport tax should be cancelled. (There is already a fuel excise tax for this purpose.)
3. Work and rest schedules of drivers should adapted to real conditions in Russia.
4. The government should resign, and no confidence in the president expressed.
5. Weigh stations should be made to do their job properly.
6.Carriers should be given grounds for how the fuel excise tax is calculated.
7X7‘s correspondent went on a run with Alexei Borisov, coordinator of the OPR’s Ryazan branch, to check the validity of these demands.
“I Didn’t Want to be Father Frost Anymore”
“I have an old Kamaz. It rattles and growls, and the wind blows in through the door. It runs slow. Do you have motion sickness? It can give you motion sickness,” Alexei warns before our trip.
How do I know whether I have motion sickness? I don’t ride the big rigs every day. Honestly, I’ve never ridden in a big rig. I’ll be happy if I can climb into the cab.
Before the trip, Alexei and I agree we’ll address each with the informal “thou” (ty). It’s extremely hard to maintain etiquette when you’re bouncing over bumps in the road and your teeth are chattering from night frosts. Also, Alexei repeats to me several times that he is a carrier, not a long-haul trucker. There is a difference.
9:00 p.m. We leave Ryazan headed for Moscow. Twenty tons of reinforced concrete slabs rumble on the nearly 14-meter-long trailer behind us. It’s dark and drizzling. The cab is hot and drafty at the same time. I hadn’t imagined the romance of the open road like this. I should have listened to an experienced wheelman earlier, instead of singer Tatyana Ovsiyenko’s tender voice.
Tatyana Ovsiyenko, “Long-Haul Trucker” (1993)
We have left the remains of Ryazan’s pavement behind and are traveling down a good road illuminated here and there. Round midnight, the trees, ravines, and hoses on the roadsides merge into one continuous blur, and my eyes close.
“Did you get in some good sleep before the trip?”
“No, I had a lot of things to do.”
“As long as I’m talking, I’m fine. But I usually stop in a side lane and doze for fifteen minutes or so. It helps.”
“Another half an hour.”
So we talk about roads and school pranks, fuel prices and children, the remnants of green zones and the nuances of professions.
Alexei is a “hereditary” driver, as they say. His favorite pastime in childhood was riding the bus his father drove. Immediately after graduation, he got a job as a vehicle mechanic in Motor Convoy No. 1310, and then a job as a bus driver. He finished his studies to be licensed to drive articulated buses and, at the same time, trailer trucks.
“I transferred to Motor Convoy No. 1417, which services the passenger route between Ryazan and Moscow. They had just purchased Setra buses. Compared to our ancient Russian buses, they were simply a dream. And I was entrusted with one of these buses. I would sign off on the manifest and I go off on my route in a white shirt and blazer. It was great, but after a while they cracked down on us. They made our work conditions harsher in the stupidest way, and in some cases they would just take the piss out of us,” recounts Alexei, irritated.
That was about six years ago. The stewardesses on the long-distrance buses (not to be confused with airplane stewardesses) were forbidden to relax after they handed out food and drinks. They had to keep serving passengers for the entire trip, and smile to them even if they were drunk. Drivers were forbidden from getting free rides to work on buses from their own motor convoy. The next-to-last straw was the Father Frost suit Alexei was obliged to wear over the New Year’s holidays. (The stewardesses were dressed, respectively, as Snow Maidens). The last straw was a fine for stretching his arms over the steering wheel for a couple of seconds. His back had gone to sleep, and he needed to move around a little. An observer saw him do this.
“I couldn’t stand it and I quit. Some might find it stupid. For example, a friend of mine still works there. After every new twist on the part of management, he would sigh and say, ‘They know better. If we’re not dealt with strictly, we’ll lose all fear.’ Why should I fear anyone? I was a responsible employee. I never argued with the passengers. I don’t drink. I don’t even smoke,” Alexei tells me buoyantly, meaning we’re going straight through without stopping.
12:00 p.m., Moscow Region. Through the murky window I notice road workers and convenient multi-level parking lots. A lot of new buildings are going up at a fair distance from the Moscow Ring Road, not as in Ryazan, where they are built right next to the the roads. Speaking of the roads: they exist, and they’re very good.
The big rig alternates between buzzing and barely dragging along, and calming down and cruising more briskly.
“My Kamaz truck is a bit old, and the trip is rough on it. On the other hand, it’s easier to maintain. Spare parts for foreign-made trucks cost so much the guys have to take out loans. The transport tax on them is higher. On the other hand, old trucks like mine won’t be allowed into cities. Right now, this truck feeds a family with two children. I haven’t thought about what I’ll do next.”
We turn off the Ring Road and drive into a pitch-dark neighborhood. The road has been paved with concrete slabs, but none too smoothly. Here and there, we bump along as if we are driving up steps. There is a shaft of light ahead and the outlines of high-rises.
02:05 a.m. A construction site in Mitino, our destination.
According to Alexei, we must “now unload quickly and hightail it back,” to make it through Moscow during permitted hours. He disappears behind mountains of slabs, bricks, and god knows what else.
Another multi-ton rig is already waiting to unload.
My legs numb, I clamber out of the cab. There is frost. The puddles no longer chomp underfoot, but crackle. After stretching my legs and strolling round the half-deserted construction site, I climb back into the cab and look for the thermos.
Alexei comes back in a very bad mood.
“They’ll unload that rig over there now, and then the crane will be busy. They won’t get to us till morning, so we’re hardly going to get through Moscow before the Ring Road has been closed to trucks. There’s the option of bypassing the city on the A107, but that’s an extra 100 kilometers. So this run will be a loss for me. Or . . . We’ll wait and see. I’m going to pull down the bunk for your now. Do you want the sleeping bag?
Oh, what a sinner I am. Remembering all the unprintable expressions I know, I climb up on the bunk located behind the seats. At first, I “modestly” cover myself with my down jacket, but within five minutes I realize my ear, back, and feet are freezing, and I give up, asking Alexei whether I can have the sleeping bag after all. I warm up instantly and doze off. Through my drowsiness I can hear the rumble of a construction crane, the occasional shouts of workers, and the roar of caged packages of bricks being loaded.
Alexei settles down on the seats to sleep.
Marriage, the Photo Shoot, and the Big Bosses 05:50 a.m. Nearly sea-like pitching wakes me up. They’ve finally begun unloading our Kamaz. Nearby, a scandal is brewing.
It turrns out one of the slabs is defective. The first “big boss” flatly refuses to sign for it. The second boss, who is even bigger and more important, orders it removed from the trailer and tossed “in that pile way over there.” He says the supplier has already sent them several defective slabs, but it’s not a disaster and not a rarity. It’s just that building material has to go back to the supplier on one of their own trucks. We still cannot head home, because Alexei has to sign several papers, and they won’t be available until eight o’clock. Eight o’clock! Apparently, we’ll have to hang around in some dump until 10 p.m.
For a while, I take pictures of the old Kamaz, the beautiful sunrise, and landscapes near and far. That is when I am detained until they “discover the purpose of the photo shoot.”
“Why are you shooting the construction site?” asks a heavyset guard.
“No reason,” I reply sincerely, “I’m shooting the truck.”
“You infiltrated the construction site in this truck?”
“Excuse me, what did I do? I infiltrated the site like a spy, and now I’m openly snapping pictures?”
I laugh, but just in case I hide my camera behind my back.
I’m asked to report to the boss, and then to another boss. The biggest security boss is surprised when I tell him the Plato toll rates have not been decreased, but are scheduled to go up. He clicks his tongue in sympathy, but still asks me to delete the shots where it is clear what residential complex this is.
“The tenants walk around shooting, and then they discuss the whats and wherefores on the internet. They complain regulations have been broken here. You can’t shoot here. It’s forbidden.”
“What regulations have been broken? Let’s talk about it.”
The boss politely but silently escorts me to the truck.
“What now?” I hopelessly ask my traveling companion.
“What now? We’re out of here!”
And yes, we’re driving on the Moscow Ring Road. It’s 7:40 a.m.
“We Wanted to Explain It All to Putin”
“We’re going to be fined,” I predict.
“What’s the difference? Either we pay the fine or we fuel up for a 100-kilometer bypass. Or we wait until nightfall. You want to do that?”
I don’t want to do that at all. I ask Alexei how he get involved in the OPR and became a coordinator for them.
“It all kicked off in late 2015, when the authorities informed us Plato would be introduced. Working and surviving got noticeably tougher then: the dollar went up, and prices skyrocketed. Fuel and spare parts were suddenly like gold. But instead of instituting preferential terms of some kind for carriers, they hit us with Plato. [The system’s name in Russian, Platon, is, technically, an abbreviation for “payment for tons,” but what comes to any Russian speaker’s mind when they hear the name Platon is not freight haulage tolls, but the great ancient Greek philosopher. Hence, throughout the numerous articles on the struggle of Russian truckers to band together and defeat what they regard as a death blow to independent trucking I have posted on this website, I have consistently translated the term as “Plato,” because, in part, this is the only way to convey the boundless cynicism of the Kremlin insiders and cronies who christened their system for fleecing hard-working men and women with the name of a brave man who willingly accepted death rather than betray his convictions. — TRR.] It was then that many headed to Moscow to seek the truth. We weren’t thinking about politics. We just wanted to explain to Putin we couldn’t work this way. Everyone would go bankrupt. We sincerely thought he didn’t know anything, and we would tell him how things were, and he would get to the bottom of it. Now it sounds funny, but that’s what believed then. Reporters and volunteers, friends and families, sympathizers and fence-straddlers came to our strike camp in Khimki, but no one in the government bothered to talk with us. Most of the media either said nothing about our protest or cooked the facts. I spent four and half months in that camp. I figured out a lot of things. I peeled myself from the TV and saw the light. I met outstanding people. The camp broke up on May 1, 2016, but on April 30 we held a founding congress and the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR) was established.
“Maybe It’s Better Not to Make Them Angry?” 11:10 a.m. We are leaving the Moscow Ring Road behind.
I silently rejoice in the fact that no one stopped us and fined us. True, along the way, we encounteredd several Plato system monitoring detectors, but more about that a bit later.
The conversation turns to profits and expenses. From everything Alexei tells me, it emerges that the better your rig, the more you earn, and the more you have to give back.
“I’ll get 15,000 rubles [approx 240 euros] for this run. That’s not a lot: it should be at least 18,000. Out of that money, I’ll spend 7,500 rubles on diesel fuel. An excise tax of 6,500 rubles has been added to the price of each liter. Plus, wear and tear on the tires costs another 1,000 rubles. So I end up making 6,500 rubles. It would be a good thing if I set aside some of this money for changing tires. I buy the cheapest tires I can find, Chinese-made, but even for them I’ll have to pay more than 250,000 rubles [approx. 4,000 euros] to ‘reshoe’ the tractor and trailer. I should also set aside money to pay the transport tax. I pay around 13,000 rubles, but my truck is low-powered. The rate for multi-ton tractors with 400 to 500 horsepower engines is around 40,000 rubles [approx. 645 euros]. Next comes the annual insurance payment. That’s 10 to 12 thousand rubles. Then there are the annual payments individual entrepreneurs make to the pension fund (23,400 rubles) and for the obligatory medical insurance policy (4,590 rubles). So when you set aside money for this and that, it means you haven’t earned anything. If you don’t set aside money, you’ll have to take out a loan to make all the insurance and tax payments. Finally, you have to rely only on luck in this job, because you might have to send your rig in for repairs for an indefinite period. You might be ill, and a client might not pay you.
The average price of the tachograph truck drivers are now required to install is 60,000 rubles. We have driven 380 kilometers on a federal highway, so the Plato system toll should amount to 580 rubles. From April 15, the rate will climb to 3.06 rubles a kilometer, so the same run would cost 1,163 rubles in tolls. [Fontanka.ru reported earlier today, March 24, 2017, that Prime Minister Medvedev, after meeting with a group of unidentified truckers, had agreed to reduce the planned per kilometer tariff to 1.91 rubles. When I pointed this development out to a civic activist working closely with the OPR, he told me, “That circus won’t stop the guys. They weren’t involved in the negotiations.”— TRR.] According to Alexei, it is seemingly not that much, but if you add each payment to all the previous payments, you wind up with a whopping sum of money. Alexei says many carriers resort to the help of logistics companies, who also have to be paid for their services.
“Can you earn more?”
“You can. You can get three or four orders a week, but then your expenses go up, too, on fuel and depreciation. You can take orders that have to be unloaded in Moscow itself. But to get into the city you have to buy a pass. If I’m not mistaken, the starting price for it is 35,000 rubles a month.”
That’s probably what matters most. Carriers cannot count on earning a stable living. You can’t guess how many runs you’ll get, but you have to pay all the bills.
“Is everyone used to Plato?”
“Almost no one pays,” says Alexei, noticeably coming to life. “They dupe the system as they’re able by paying much less than the mileage they’ve traveled, and many drivers don’t pay at all. It’s a sort of tiny rebellion. But that’s for the time being, because the bugs haven’t been worked out of the system. We’ve been promised a crackdown in April such that we’ll paying out more than we earn. And those aren’t empty threats,” Alexei says confidently.
“How can you not pay the road toll if those detectors, which are equipped with video cameras, are out there?”
“Well, they don’t see our license numbers,” my companion utters mysteriously. I realize he won’t say anything more on the subject.
We pull into roadside cafes, simply stopping to down the tea in our thermos. Then we head to Kolomna for loading, but that job has nothing to do with the earnings from today’s run. They’re just old obligations. The road drones continuously in my head, and my legs and back seemingly no longer belong to me.
4:00 p.m. Ryazan, Village of Yuzhny.
Alexei drives the big rig into a parking lot (another expense), located in a field next to a cemetery. He tidies up his “work area.” The last thing he does is turn off the radio, which broadcast the strike notice and the strikers’ demands the whole time we were on the road. Drivers reacted in different ways. Someone confidently said, “The Rotenbergs won’t stop here. They’ll push through a systematic increase in tolls for travel on federal highways, just as they have made a tradition of increasing rates for utilities and housing maintenance.” Others were blatantly afraid and suggested not angering them: otherwise, they would stop employing the truckers. Still others awkwardly feigned they had no idea what was going on.
“How many Ryazan trucks will go on strike?” I ask finally.
“I’m hoping around twenty, but it’s better not to guess beforehand.”
Alexei closes the tractor’s doors and checks to make sure they’re shut.
“Do you believe in change?”
“If I didn’t believe in it, I would pay my rates and keep my mouth shut.”
“Aren’t you afraid?”
“I’m tired,” he replies, partly closing his eyes. “I’m tired in general and tired of being afraid.”
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Uvarova for the heads-up. All photos courtesy of Yekaterina Vulikh and 7X7. See the original article in Russian for many more photos from Ms. Vulikh’s road trip with Mr. Borisov
Russian Truckers to Launch Nationwide Strike on March 27 Rosbalt
March 13, 2017
On March 27, truckers will launch an indefinite strike against road tolls for cargo trucks on federal highways and the Plato toll payment system in general, Andrei Bazhutin, chair of the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR), announced at a press conference. According to Bazhutin, the protest’s objective is to force the government to revise the regulations for road freight transportation.
“We want to stop the flow of goods as much as possible. Maybe this will be painful for ordinary folks, but we have no other choice. We are supported by 80% of the carriers in Russia. In the big cities, we will be organizing convoys along the roadsides, and we also have rallies planned. Our goal is to sit down at the negotiating table,” said Bazhutin.
He noted that if the authorities do not react to the strike, the strikers will call for the government to resign.
“We have several issues. The main issue is the Plato system. We don’t agree with it, and carriers have been sabotaging it. The government still hasn’t explained to us what we’re paying for, the kind of damage we’re doing to the roads, allegedly. They haven’t shown us any figures,” explained Bazhutin.
The OPR’s chair added that carriers were also worried about technical errors in the weight-and-size scales at the entrances to highways, as well as the work schedules of drivers.
“When a truck drives through the electronic detector, the machine might output the wrong data. There have already been such incidents. Drivers have run through these scales, delivered their cargo, unloaded, and gone home, only to get a fine in the mail of 150,000 rubles [approx. 2,400 euros] and higher a while later. This is really painful for carriers. The work schedule has to be based on Russian realities. They are imposing a European system that doesn’t suit us,” Bazhutin underscored.
According to Bazhutin, strike organizers are currently informing notifying carriers in the regions and getting permissions for protest actions from local authorities.
“Most likely, closer to April 15 there will be a rally. We’ve chosen the date because it’s when the rates go up. I think the strike will last a month, at least. If we stop work for a day, the flow of goods will not stop, except for perishables. It’s a long process, and it will develop as it goes along,” said the OPR chair.
Protesting Truckers Block Western High-Speed Diameter Highway in Petersburg Delovoi Peterburg
January 5, 2017
Truckers protesting against tolls for traveling on the Western High-Speed Diameter (ZSD) blocked the entrances to the tollway. Our correspondent reported from the scene that the protest lasted about an hour, and the protesters blocked five lanes.
A truck, a GAZelle van, three cars, and approximately ten people were involved in the protest. They rammed the barriers at the entrance to the tollway with their vehicles and blocked traffic. A small traffic jam formed at the entrance during the protest. ZSD staff reacted charitably to the incident, avoiding provoking the truckers. Traffic police who arrived at the scene wrote up the incident as a traffic accident—as a collision with the barriers. No police were involved in the protest, and no arrests were made.*
“Basically, the protest is not far from our focus on transportation, on the Plato tolls system, because the site of the protest is another toll road. Since we cannot block federal highways, we can quite legally come to a stop at the toll booths,” said Bazhutin in an interview with Business FM.
The ZSD’s central section opened in the wee hours of December 3. A day earlier, on December 2, President Vladimir Putin inspected the highway. The highway is nearly 47 kilometers long. The toll for travel on various sections of the highway ranges from 45 to 300 rubles for different types of vehicles. If the annual income of the operator, Northern Capital Highway, falls below 9.6 billion rubles, the city will offset the investor’s losses. Moreover, the concession agreement, signed by the operator and the city, predicts that collected tolls will not reach this level until 2019.
* UPDATE. OVD Info reports that one protester, Alexander Makarov, was arrested at the scene, according to his attorney Dinar Idrisov. Makarov was initially charged with a misdemeanor under Article 20.19 (blocking transportation routes) of the Administrative Offense Code. Later, he was additionally charged with disobeying the lawful demands of police officers (Article 19.3). The second charge made it possible for police to keep Makarov in custody overnight before his court hearing.
Victoria Lomasko Truckers, Torfyanka, and Dubki: Grassroots Protests in Russia, 2015–2016
In late February 2015, politician Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Russian opposition, was gunned down near the Kremlin.
Grassroots activists immediately set up a people’s memorial, made up of bouquets, photos, drawings, and candles, at the scene of the crime, on Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge. For over a year, they have been taking shifts guarding the memorial from members of various nationalist movements and bridge maintenance workers, who routinely haul away the flowers and photos as if they were trash.
“The assaults on the memorial occur like pogroms in a Jewish shtetl: it’s the luck of the draw,” these two people on vigil at the memorial told me. “They pick a time when the people on duty have let down their guard, like three or four in the morning.”
Headed by opposition leaders and attended by thousands of people, the 2012 rallies and marches for fair elections and a “Russia without Putin!” ended with the show trials of 2013 and 2014 against opposition leaders (Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov) and rank-and-file protesters (the so-called prisoners of May 6).
In 2015 and 2016, the Marches of the Millions have given way to small-scale rallies and protests. People far removed from politics have tried to defend their own concrete rights.
I made these drawings at a rally in defense of the Dynasty Foundation. An NGO founded to support scientific research and science education in Russia, it had been declared a “foreign agent” by the Justice Ministry.
In June 2015, residents of Moscow’s Losiny Ostrov (Moose Island) District came together to stop construction of a church in their local park, Torfyanka. The building had been planned as part of the Russian Orthodox Church’s 200 Churches Program.
Residents set up a tent camp in the park and stood watch in shifts to keep construction equipment from entering the site. They also filed a lawsuit, asking the court to declare the public impact hearing on the construction project null and void. The hearing had been held without their involvement. Continue reading “Victoria Lomasko: Truckers, Torfyanka, and Dubki”→