National Guard and Riot Cops Face Protesting Truckers in Dagestan

“To protest the fact that submachine gunners have blockaded them in Dagestan, the truckers have climbed onto the roofs of their semis.” Twitter post by Echo of Moscow correspondent Arseny Vesnin, posoted at 5:53 p.m. on March 31, 2017. Image courtesy of Meduza

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 Saw the Light”: Why Ryazan Truckers Are Striking on March 27

“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.

Alexei Borisov

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.”

“How’s that?”

“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.”

“How much?”

“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.

Alexei’s Kamaz truck

“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 Strike Nationwide on March 27

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.

[…]

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Real Russia Today

Truckers Block New Tollway in Petersburg

Protesting Truckers Block Western High-Speed Diameter Highway in Petersburg
Delovoi Peterburg
January 5, 2017

Car sporting anti-Plato road tolls payment system sticker blocks entrance to Western High-Speed Diameter in Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Anton Vaganov/Delovoi Peterburg

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.*

One of the protest’s organizers, Andrei Bazhutin, chair of the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR), explained that the truckers’ main demand was to make travel on the highway free, despite the fact it was built as a public-private partnership.

“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.

Translated by the Russian Reader. See my previous posts on the ZSD’s horrific visual impact on the Petersburg cityscape.

* 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

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.

Slogan on man’s t-shirt: “Navalny didn’t steal the timber.” May 24, 2016

“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.”

Woman: “People will take to the barricades only when food runs out in the stores.” Slogan on her shirt: “The ‘Russian world’ has no use for science and education.’” Rally in defense of science and education, June 6, 2015

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.

“Today, they killed Nemtsov. Tomorrow, they’ll kill a nationalist leader.” Rally in defense of science and education

Torfyanka

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.

“People need hospitals and kindergartens more than another church on the site of our park.” Torfyanka Park, July 1, 2015
“People need hospitals and kindergartens more than another church on the site of our park.” Torfyanka Park, July 1, 2015

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”

“Are You Freezing?”: Police Crack Down on Protesting Russian Truckers Again

Protesting Truckers Make Political Demands
On Anniversary of Anti-Plato Protests, Police Were Lying in Wait for Activists at Famous Parking Lot in Khimki and Quickly Detained Them; Ambulance Summoned to Courtroom
Dmitry Rebrov
Novaya Gazeta
November 12, 2016

The problems with the “anniversary”—it was exactly a year ago, on November 11, 2015, that Russian truckers kicked off their protest against the newly introduced Plato road tolls system—started long before the D-Day designated by the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR). On November 9, it transpired that the Khimki mayor’s office would not permit them to gather at their old spot under the MEGA sign, the place where trucks had stood parked for nearly six months.

The truckers responded by decided to replace the rally with a series of solo pickets, but problems arose in this case as well. First, the truckers, who had been going to the parking lot and checking it out over the course of the year, were not admitted to the site of their former camp. Arriving twenty-four hours before the start of the pickets, Mikhail Kurbatov, one of the movement’s leaders, discovered signs saying, “Truck traffic prohibited,” and a police squad who forcibly removed him from the parking lot. A video showing the police twisting his arms has already been posted on the web. And on the morning of the eleventh, it was discovered that maintenance services had managed to pile the spot itself with snow, given that the weather was forthcoming.

However, a genuinely cold reception lay in store for the activists.

“People versus Plato!” Photo courtesy of Dmitry Rebrov/Novaya Gazeta

“There will be protest rallies today in twenty-two regions, so there aren’t so many people here. All the activists have gone to their home regions to rock the boat. But Muscovites have bitten the bullet and installed Plato, because it costs to protest, and we are not a united group,” said activist Igor Melnikov, standing next to a blue truck emblazoned with the OPR logo.

He was trying to explain why no more than a dozen people had assembled for the rally.

Melnikov is a Muscovite himself, just like the five regular volunteers who have been helping the Khimki protesters since last winter.

“Not everyone would choose to travel to Khimki in this weather,” Melnikov continued. “That is partly why, in place of the banned rally, it was decided to hold a big rally on Suvorov Square in Moscow on November 12, and restrict ourselves to a small detachment here in Khimki.”

The rally in Moscow has been supported by the Communists.

“What of it? I know who the Communists are, that they destroyed my country. I grew up under them. But that is okay. They can hold the microphone. We’ll live through it!” Yekaterina Bolotova, a perky brunette, put in her five kopecks.

Bolotova, a private entrepreneur, lives in Lyubertsy. She has been in business since the 1990s.

While we were chatting, a grader kept shoveling dirty snow towards the MEGA sign as freezing rain fell.

“There is already more than three of you. What are you doing here?”

A delegation from the Moscow Regional Criminal Investigative Department had arrived to test the waters. Two gloomy figures, both dressed in black, approached us, obviously reluctantly. The larger of the two men showed us his ID: “Oleg Nikolayevich Kuznetsov.” The second man did not show us his badge, but explained the reason for the visit.

“The bosses sent us.”

“Speaking frankly, we’re expecting certain people,” the cops said in a roundabout way. “The people who are going to protest Plato.”

“We are those people. What else do you want?” the truckers unceremoniously informed them.

“No to Plato. I pay taxes for roads. I could give a flying fuck about Rotenberg.” Photo courtesy of Dmitry Rebrov/Novaya Gazeta

The police then withdrew, asking us not to photograph their faces.

“I’m a secret agent. My face cannot be published!” said “Oleg Nikolayevich Kuznetsov” self-importantly.

“Well, if you’re so secret, why don’t you stay at home, since we can’t look at you?” a trucker retorted.

Meanwhile, a paddy wagon and reinforcements were pulling up at the impromptu checkpoint behind them.

“We now have political demands. In addition to abolishing the Plato system, we want transport minister Maxim Sokolov to resign, Prime Minister Medvedev to resign, and the repeal of Article 20.2 of the Russian Federal Administrative Offenses Code, which covers violations at political rallies, because it is insanity. People are no longer able to voice their opinions,” said Kurbatov.

According to the OPR’s official website, the truckers propose leaving only the fuel excise tax intact and scrapping the transport tax. They support judicial reform, including the recertification of all judges. And they want “all embezzlers to face criminal charges.”

Some of these demands are a natural response to the endless jail terms and arrests the once apolitical truckers have faced.  Other demands have emerged in the aftermath of discussions with political activists who regularly visited the protest camp last winter.

Looking for the “Core” Activists

“Are they making arrests?”

“He raised flags on his trucks!”

We dashed through the snowdrifts to the other end of the parking lot, where a dozen cops were packing Sergei Einbinder, an activist with the Interregional Trade Union of Professional Drivers, into a car.

Led by Alexander Kotov, the Khimki protesters had managed to come to an agreement with police spokespeople about joint actions for the first time in a long time. Kotov had once led the resistance, but quickly surrendered, as the Khimki protesters explained, causing general annoyance among the striking truckers. Instead of blocking the Moscow Ring Road and driving a convoy into downtown Moscow, under Kotov’s leadership the protest had bogged down in attempts to slow down the “radicals” and in endless negotiations with federal MPs. Now, apparently, the irritation with Kotov had passed.

“The security forces had pressured Kotov back then,” explained Bolotova,  a Kotov supporter.

She had come to Khimki to establish contacts, but unlike Eibinder, she had immediately gone over to her colleagues.

Bolotova had also been dragged in for interrogations by the Lyubertsy police and Center “E.”

“Today [they’re making us pay] for the roads. Tomorrow, it will be for the air.” Photo courtesy of Dmitry Rebrov/Novaya Gazeta

Similar coercion had led to a break with the group of activists who had fought the Rotenbergs most fiercely, the Dagestanis. None of their members was present at Friday’s rally.

“At the moment, we have lost contact with Dagestan,” admitted Kurbatov. “All our work there was tied to Rustam Mallamagomedov, but after he was beaten up while we were waiting for the [Krasnodar] farmers in a camp near Rostov and then sentenced to administrative arrest in absentia, he was basically forced to give up the cause and go to ground. Currently, we are not even in contact with him.”

Kurbatov added that security forces coerced and terrorized the Dagestani truckers the most harshly.

“Are You Freezing?”

When, an hour later, the truckers emerged from the MEGA mall, where they had gone to get out harm’s way and discuss strategy, to take up their solo pickets, the police amassed in the parking lot reacted almost instantly.

The first to be sent to the precinct were Yekaterina Bolotova and Igor Melnikov. By midday, the security forces had managed to cram all the truckers, all their volunteer helpers from Khimki, and even the journalists, including a crew from TV Rain, into the paddy wagon.

“What we predicted last year has happened. As soon as [parliamentary] elections had taken place, the moratorium on raising rates was lifted. In fact, the government did not even keep its own promise of freezing prices until July 2017. So we decided there was no time to lose, and we have hit the streets, although we were not very well prepared,” said Kurbatov.

By six in the evening on Friday, all the detainees had been delivered to Police Precinct No. 1 in Khimki. But it proved difficult to find out what the truckers had been charged with.

In the morning, the truckers’ attorneys informed us that Sergei Einbinder, who had been detained first, had cut his hands and face to protest the police’s actions.

“After twenty hours at the precinct, they hadn’t even allowed me to see a lawyer or explain what I was being charged with, so I decided to take extreme measures,” Einbinder told Novaya Gazeta by phone.

Earlier, Einbinder had tried to leave the police station on his own after surrendering his internal passport, but police responded by detaining two lawyers that had been provided for him by the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). The two lawyers, Vitaly Serukanov and Artyom Khemelevsky, have already been released. The journalists taken down to the precinct with the truckers were released the same day. No arrest reports were filed against them nor were they subjected to additional questioning.

By Saturday, it had transpired the truckers involved in the protest had been charged with disobeying the police (Article 19.3 of the Administrative Offenses Code) rather than for violating the rules of public rallies (Article 20.2).

Elena Filippova, press secretary for the truckers, who was detained along with them, related what conditions have been like for the activists at the police station. According to her, the female activists who have been helping the truckers and the truckers themselves slept in separate cells.

“In the women’s cells, the three of us were given one dry mattress, which we could sleep on, and two wet mattresses. We have now just thrown out the wet mattresses. Apparently, they had long been waiting their turn, and such an occasion had presented itself. Girls had shown up at the station: why not torment them a bit? In the morning, one of the cops gleefully asked, ‘Are you freezing?’ We have been allowed to use the toilet only twice in twenty hours, and we had to demand to be given food, which was brought only six hours later.”

Court hearings commenced only at two in the afternoon, and they looked likely to run until Saturday evening.

After numerous requests, Sergei Einbinder was transported from the courthouse by an ambulance crew.

Currently, truckers Mikhail Kurbatov, Vladimir Sinitsyn, Dmitry Lazar, and Igor Melnikov, their assistants Ivan Gushchin and OPR press secretary Elena Filippova, and activist Olga Reznikova, who also was involved in Friday’s protest, are still in police custody.

Translated by the Russian Reader