How to Shut Down an Independent Trade Union The reason for the rapid dissolution of Alexei Etmanov’s union was a complaint about what it does: defending the rights of workers
Pavel Aptekar Vedomosti
January 12, 2018
The St. Petersburg City Court’s decision to dissolve the Interregional Trade Union Workers Association (MPRA) at the request of the prosecutor’s office has not yet come into force. But the case itself clearly illustrates the current regime’s suspicious attitude towards independent trade unions that do not restrict their activities to handing out discounted holiday packages and tickets to children’s New Year’s celebrations.
MPRA was registered in February 2007. Its core consisted of the trade union of autoworkers at the Ford plant in the Petersburg suburb of Vsevolozhsk, famous for its pay rise demands and defense of workers’ rights. The emergence of a trade union that vigorously and effectively defended workers at foreign-owned plants was no accident. There is no legacy at such plants of servile, Soviet-era trade unions, which were once part of the management machine. Foreign companies have been forced to deal with the right of workers to go on strike and other means of self-defense against overtime and layoffs.
According to MPRA chair Alexei Etmanov, his career as a trade union activist kicked off randomly, in part. In 2001, soon after the Ford plant went on line, as one of the leaders of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) local at the plant, Etmanov was invited to a congress of Ford trade union workers in North and South America. According to Etmanov, it was then he realized a real trade union not only handed out benefits and formally coordinated management’s decisions but also consistently defended the rights of employees from groundless redundancies, unpaid overtime, and other forms of managerial tyranny.
MPRA never concealed its membership in the IndustriALL Global Union, which has fifty million members in 140 countries worldwide, nor did its activities previously trouble the Russian authorities. MPRA’s troubles began after a pro-regime blogger, who saw signs of political activity in the trade union’s work and accused it of hiding its status as a “foreign agent,” filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office. The complaint led to an audit, and later, in December 2017, the prosecutor’s office filed suit with the court, asking it to dissolve MPRA.
The prosecutor’s key claim against MPRA (Vedomosti has obtained a copy of the lawsuit) was that it received financing from abroad and had not registered as a “foreign agent.” MPRA’s crusade to amend labor laws and its solidarity with protests by Russian truckers against the introduction of the Plato road tolls system in 2015—the ordinary work of a normal trade union in a country with a market economy—have been depicted as “political activity” by the prosecutor’s office. The lawsuit also includes claims that appear to be pettifogging, in particular, that MPRA incorrectly listed its official address, that it originally registered in a manner not stipulated by law, and so on.
Yet the lawsuit does not contain any mention of demands by the prosecutor’s office to eliminate the shortcomings it has, allegedly, identified. For example, in 2015, after such demands were voiced and corresponding changes made, the Supreme Court dismissed the Justice Ministry’s suit asking that Memorial be dissolved. In Petersburg, the prosecutor petitioned the court to dissolve the trade union, no more, no less. According to Yulia Ostrovskaya, a lawyer at the Center for Social and Labor Rights, this is excessive punishment. The judgment for the plaintiff is tantamount to calling into question Russia’s observance of the International Labour Organization’s Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, signed by the Soviet Union in 1956. The convention’s third article guarantees the right of workers and employers to draw up their own constitutions and rules, freely elect their representatives, and formulate their own programs, while the fourth article states that professional organizations shall not be liable to be dissolved or suspended by administrative authority.
The circumstances reflect the regime’s growing suspicion toward independent trade unions that have not joined the Russian People’s Front (the FNPR joined the Front in 2011, for example) and insist on defending the rights of workers, notes Pavel Kudyukin, a council member at the Confederation of Labor of Russia. Authorities in some regions have accused the MPRA that they scare away investors, while courts have ruled that IndustriALL’s brochures are “extremist.” If, however, the Petersburg court’s decision is upheld by the Russian Supreme Court, it would be a terrible precedent, argues Kudyukin. All trade unions could declared “foreign agents,” include pro-regime trade unions, since many of them of belong to international trade union associations, from which they receive funding for training activists and making trips abroad.
Labor protests in Russia in terms of percentages of those involved, 2008–first half of 2017. Red = spontaneous; pink = trade union locals; dark blue = national trade unions; gray = workers’ committees; light blue = political parties and grassroots organizations; pale blue = other. The percentage may exceed 100% if several actors were involved in the same protest. Courtesy of the Center for Social and Labor Rights
The number of protests has been continuously growing in Russia throughout the year. In the first quarter, 284 protests were recorded; in the second quarter, 378; and in the third quarter, 445. Thus, as noted in the report, the overall number of protests has increased by almost 60% since the beginning of the year.
The analysts at the CEPF divide protests into political protests, socio-economic protests, and labor protests. They note that around 70% of protests had to do with socio-economic issues, including protests by Russian truckers against the Plato road tolls system, and protests by Russian farmers against the seizure of land by agroholdings, as well as protests by hoodwinked investors in unbuilt cooperative apartment buildings.
The number of conflicts related to labor relations has also steadily climbed throughout the year. The number of protests caused by cases of late payment and non-payment of wages, for example, has grown as follows: 142 in the first quarter, 196 in the second quarter, and 447 in the third quarter. Thus, by the third quarter, the number of such incidents had more than tripled.
The authors of the CEPR report cites figures provided by Rosstat, according to which the amount of unpaid back wages in Russia totaled 3.38 billion rubles [approx. 49 million euros] as of October 1, 2017. The number of incidents of late payment and non-payment of wages in the third quarter of 2017 (447 companies) was more than triple the number of such incidents in the first quarter (147 companies), and more than double the number in the second quarter (196 companies).
The analysts point out that Russia has not yet put in place a system for preventing and constructively solving social conflicts, and thus protests are still nearly the only effective means for employees to defend their rights.
“We should generally expect the high number of protests nationwide to continue, especially in the socio-economic realm. This is due to the fact the problems people (hoodwinked investors, truckers, farmers, opponents of construction projects, environmental activists et al.) have been currently protesting have not been solved. At the same time, evolution of the protest movement has been greatly hampered by the lack of capable political parties, grassroots organizations, and trade unions,” write CEPR’s analysts.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (second right) and National Guard chief Viktor Zolotov (third left) take part in a ceremony marking National Guard Day in Moscow on March 27. Photo courtesy of Mikhail Klimentyev/TASS
Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed legislation to widen the responsibility of the National Guard, an entity created last year and headed by Putin’s former chief bodyguard, to include protecting regional governors.
The bill was published on the website of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on November 6.
The Duma is dominated by the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party and supports almost all Kremlin initiatives.
The proposed change could enhance Putin’s ability to crack down on dissent or seek to impose order if there is unrest in Russia’s far-flung regions.
The National Guard reports directly to the president. Its director, Viktor Zolotov, was chief of the presidential security service from 2000 to 2013.
The initiative comes months before a March 18 election in which Putin is expected to seek and secure a new six-year term.
Putin will be barred from seeking reelection in 2024 if he does win a fourth presidential term in the March vote, raising questions about how Russian politics will play out in the coming years and how he will maintain his grip.
Putin established the National Guard (Rosgvardia) in 2016 on the basis of the Interior Ministry troops and other security forces.
Its stated tasks initially included preserving “social order,” fighting against terrorism and extremism, and guarding state facilities.
The National Guard announced that it will be also responsible for a fingerprints database, issuing weapons-possession licenses, averting “threats to state order,” and protecting information security.
How a Petersburger Trucker Has Decided to Sue Plato
Venera Galeyeva Fontanka.ru
October 16, 2017
After getting his first fine for non-payment of fees under the Plato road tolls system, a Petersburg trucker has challenged it in court. The case could become an important precedent.
Individual entrepreneur Yuri Bubnov has two freight trucks, one of which is on the road, a MAN-produced box truck he uses to deliver consumer goods to Moscow and Vladimir. As a matter of principle, he has not registered the truck with the Plato road tolls system, has not put a transponder on the truck, and does not pay the new Plato fees. In 2015, he was one of the few people who took part in a road rally of truckers from Petersburg to Moscow. His runs take him past Plato sensors outside Tosno and in Tver, Klin, and Novgorod Region.
A sensor mounted on the Pokrov–Elektrogorsk segment of the M7 Federal Highway finally reacted to Bubnov’s truck on September 28. On October 6, the traffic police issued Bubnov a fine of 5,000 rubles for failure to pay his Plato road toll fees. Ironically, the very same day, the Russian government approved a fourfold increase in fines for non-payers. On October 14, Bubnov sent a letter to the Odintsovo City Court in Moscow Region challenging the decision to issue the fine and petitioning the court to move the venue for hearing the case to the Kalinin District Court in Petersburg, the plaintiff’s place of residence. The truck is registered in Bubnov’s wife’s name, so she will be acting as a defender in the case: “I consider the ruling in the administrative case unfounded and illegal, which I shall prove during the trial.” Yet Bubnov could pay a discounted fine of 2,500 rubles by October 26 and live peacefully.
Truckers have tried before to challenge the issuing of fines for failure to pay Plato road tolls, but for formal reason,s e.g., the paperworks was not drawn up properly, the truck’s owner was not behind the wheel during the alleged violation, and so on. Bubnov’s case if fundamentally different. He wants to challenge the law itself and is willing to give up at least a year of his life to do it.
Bubnov expounds his position.
“According to the Russian Federal Civil Code, damage must be paid be jointly by everyone everyone involved in causing damage. However much damage you caused that is how you pay,” he says.
[Bubnov has in mind the government’s original stated rationale for introducing the Plato road tolls system. Since cargo trucks, allegedly, cause more wear and tear on federal highways than other vehicles, the argument went, they should pay additional fees, based on the number of kilometers traveled, to compensate for this damage and thus provide more money for repairing major roads.—TRR]
“In addition, the damage I caused has to be proven. And, according to the Russian Federal Tax Code, payments cannot be arbitrary and should reflect the economic essence of the matter. Empty, my vehicle weighs 7,800 kilograms. The maximum weight of a loaded eighteen-wheeler is 44 tons. Obviously, we cause different amounts of wear and tear on the road. Why, then, should I pay the same amount as the driver of a loaded eighteen-wheeler?”
In May 2016, the Russian Federal Consitutional Court ruled the Plato road tolls system legal. Later, however, Constitutional Court Judge Gadis Gadzhiyev issued a dissenting opinion in which, among other things, he suggested clarifying the purpose of the fee, because, economically speaking, Plato is not compensation for damage, but a payment imposed on owners of heavy trucks for using the roads.
“As currently formulated, the Plato system is at odds with Russian federal laws,” says Bubnov. “By itself, travel on public roads is not an offense. There is a Russian federal government decree in which the maximum loads for different types of vehicle are set. The weight of my vehicle is legal.”
Bubnov also invokes an argument that truckers protesting Plato have made since 2015. If a toll is introduced for driving on a certain section of road, drivers should be provided with an alternative free detour. Otherwise, all federal highways would become toll roads for truckers.
Bubnov already has several legal victories under his belt. He has always served as his own defense counsel, and recently he has voluntarily defended his colleagues from different regions in court. On September 20, 2017, he won the so-called tachograph case, in which a trucker had been accused of violating work safety laws. A similar case is now being tried in Altai Territory.
If Bubnov’s appeal, as appended to his complaint against the Plato road tolls system fine, is rejected, first he will have to go to Odintsovo City Court, then to the Moscow Regional Court to appeal the ruling, and then to the Presidium of the Moscow Regional Court and, finally, to the Russian Federal Supreme Court and the Presidium of the Supreme Court. Bubnov plans to go to the bitter end with the final decision. According to his calculations, the whole process may take at least a year. If his petition is granted, the first three sets of hearings will be held in Petersburg. Bubnov plans on going the entire distance himself, without a lawyer.
“Essentially, Yuri Bubnov’s claims are correct,” says Irina Metel, executive director of the Northwest Carriers and Forwarders Union. “In practice, however, any case requires the assistance of a very competent laywer.”
“We are ready to support Yuri Bubnov in court,” says Maria Pazukhina, head of the OPR (Association of Russian Carriers) regional branch in Murmansk. “We have challenged fines before, but only on formal grounds, for example, due to incomplete lists of evidence or instances where agencies not empowered to do so tried to punish carriers. Yuri’s case is fundamentally different. In my view, the current authorities are unlikely to rule that Plato should be abolished. The OPR has been trying to detect the system’s faults in order to reveal its corruption and inefficiency. But so far we have not launched legal proceedings like this.”
“I’d been waiting for this fine for a year and a half, and I finally got it,” Bubnov told Fontanka.ru. “It’s good it came now, while the sensors have not been turned on everywhere. If the system were up and running normally, it would be harder to challenge the fine. The chances of a ruling in my favor are few, but what if suddenly the case is assigned to a judge who is about to retire and has nothing to lose, and he makes a ruling in accordance with the laws?”
According to Dmitry Pronchatov, assistant director of the Federal Road Agency, since the Plato road tolls system was launched, carriers have paid over 33.3 billion rubles [approx. 494 million rubles] into the road maintenance and construction fund. Over 900,000 vehicles have been registered in the system. The monies have been used to finance the construction of seven bridges and repairs on twenty-four emergency pipelines, as well as over a thousand kilometers of roads in forty cities and regions. Owners of twelve-ton trucks must pay 1.9 rubles for each kilometer of travel on federal highways.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up
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
Given the sheer numbers of reactionary/counterrevolutionary events and incidents happening in Russia every day, and the equally astronomical quantities of reactionary/counter-revolutionary statements and actions committed by Russian officials high and low (e.g. East Aleppo) over the past couple of decades, it seems a nasty farce to commemorate, much less celebrate, the centennial of the Russian revolution(s) this year.
Present-day Russia and Russians have no copyright on revolution, and this stricture applies equally to self-identified “revolutionary” or leftist Russians, who have nothing to teach or say to anyone about revolution.
Clear the current Russian built and symbolic landscape of all the post-revolutionary tat and kitsch (nearly all of it reactionary, because what could be more anti-revolutionary than a cult of personality like the one generated around the dead Lenin) that clutters it physically and nominally (e.g., Insurrection Square in Petersburg), and you would find the wildly reactionary country that actually occupies the vast expanse between the Gdansk Bay and Chukchi Peninsula.
It’s another matter that there are lots of Russians who, pluckily and smartly, individually and collectively, have been trying to overcome this black reaction in bigger and smaller ways over the “miraculous” years of the successive Putin regimes.
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.
Andrei Bazhutin: “More than a Million Trucks Have Stopped Running Nationwide”
Nina Petlyanova Novaya Gazeta
April 7, 2017
The nationwide strike by Russian truckers continues. The regime’s main weapon against the strikers has been strong-arm police tactics.
Andrei Bazhutin, chair of the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR) and thus the duly elected leader of the long-haul truckers opposed to the Plato road tolls payment system, was subject to the harshest crackdown. On March 27, he was put under arrest for 14 days. He spent five of them in a jail before he was released, but during that time the authorities nearly removed his four children from their home and almost caused his pregnant wife to have a miscarriage. But none of this has forced Bazhutin and his colleagues to give up their fight.
Is 14 days of arrest a fair move in your circumstances? What were you being punished for?
The objective is clear. This was not done at the behest of the traffic police, the police or the other security services. It was a deliberate action on the part of the regime to isolate me. The only thing was that the judge got carried away when she sentenced me to 14 days of arrest. It was cruel and unusual punishment. I didn’t do such a terrible thing to warrant isolating me for 14 days.
What did you do? Had you violated any laws?
All three cases that made it to court were about revoking my driving license. Two of the cases were heard by Judge Marina Afanasieva, who ordered me put under arrest. But in two of the three cases I wasn’t even behind the wheel. It was recorded on video: there is evidence. However, despite that, my license was revoked.
When did you find out you’d been driving with a revoked license?
On March 27, when I was detained. I knew the accusations had been made. We were challenging them, and I was certain we’d challenge them successfully. But what happened, happened. Yet the traffic cops told me I coudn’t have been unaware of driving with a revoked license. Two days before I was detained, however, I drove to Moscow and back in my own car, and no one stopped me. Am so I insane that I would drive a thousand kilometers to another city and back knowing my license had been revoked?
When I was detained, I was driving my son back from practice. He was wearing his wet uniform. We were literally a hundred meters from the house. The 25th Police Precinct, where I was eventually taken, is located in the courtyard of my building. I asked the traffic cop either get behind the wheel himself or let me drive my son to the house, but he categorically refused. Moreover, he sent a message to children’s protective services, after which they decided to take the children into their custody.
What did you do when you found out about this?
While I still had a mobile phone, I telephoned my eldest son, and he ran home. But children’s protective services explained that he was not a guardian and could not stay with the children. Right at that moment, I had been hauled to the 25th Police Precinct. The people from children’s protective services and my son entered our apartment, and they inspected everything, including the refrigerator. Then Artyom called his mom, my wife, and told her everything. She left the hospital, where she had been hospitalized to avoid a miscarriage. [Natalya Bazhutina is seven months pregnant—Novaya Gazeta.] She came home and told the children’s protective services officials that her eldest son and his grandmother were in charge of the children in her absence. But they told her they needed a power of attorney. Natalya hurried to a notary’s office, where she was told the power of attorney could have been made out in the presence of the children’s protective services employees. But they hadn’t told a pregnant woman this. On the other hand, they warned her that if my eldest son or his grandmother took the children outside for a walk, the children would be immediately removed, since they had no legal proof of guardianship.
Did you know what was happening at home when you were in court and in jail?
Not for the first two days. I was isolated. Then someone gave me a SIM card and I called home. By that time, our guys from the OPR were standing constant watch in the courtyard and not letting any outsiders get into the apartment, because there was constant surveillance in the courtyard. A car with some strange young people in it was cruising there round the clock. They vanished only after I had been under arrest for four days.
This was all done to intimidate you?
You can’t intimidate me with such methods. Although recently, who hasn’t been knocking on my door: the police, the tax inspectors, the prosecutors, the FSB. Space aliens haven’t come knocking yet.
Russian officials don’t understand they can’t intimidate us with such actions: I mean truckers in general. These are guys who are used to doing everything themselves. They’ve spent a million nights alone in the woods, in parking lots, on the side of the road. They’ve fixed their own trucks, rustled up food, and defended themselves. They are used to sticking up for themselves. You can’t derail them. That stuff doesn’t work on them.
Do they listen to you?
They do, but not the way they should. We have heard that people in power have been having nervous breakdowns due to us, due to this situation. But that’s not what we want. We aren’t professional protesters. We want to sit down at the negotiating table and solve our problems. What’s happening in the industry is abnormal. More and more truckers are involved in the strike. Some might not park their rigs, but they are riding empty: they’re not hauling cargo. They don’t park on the roadsides, they aren’t involved in our protest rallies directly, but they support us.
Your arrest and the story with your children have not altered your plans?
No way. Of course, I was worried about the children when I wasn’t sure whether the authorities would leave them at home or not. I was worried about my wife and her condition. But I was immediately bombarded with text messages from all over the country. People were willing to help. They were willing to take my family into hiding. I will be cautious in the future. But we’re not going to stop what we’re doing until we achieve something.
What is the mood of the truckers at the moment? How long do they want to strike? How far are they willing to go with their protest?
We won’t end the strike until the authorities make a decision. Whereas at the beginning of the protest, many colleagues said we wouldn’t hold out for more than a week, now everyone is unanimous that we’re holding out till the end.
The main objective is negotiations with Transport Minister Sokolov and Prime Minister Medvedev, who, I imagine, don’t have a clue about our problems. We want them at least to try and figure them out.
In addition, all members of the trucking community should sit down at the negotiating table, even those who don’t share our point of view, because the problem is vast, this is a real sector of the economy, and everyone’s opinions have to to be considered.
Until such a meeting takes place, the strike will continue. We will stay on the road until there is a real solution.
On April 5, Rustam Mallamagomedov, leader of the Dagestani truckers, was detained in Moscow. Have you figure out what happened? How are you going to react?
This is lawlessness. For the longest time, we couldn’t understand who the people who detained Rustam were. Were they from the Moscow Criminal Investigation Department or the FSB? We still don’t know what their beef with Rustam is. But we sent in the lawyers and human rights activists immediately. It worked, and Rustam is now free. We’re going to Makhachkala together. On April 7, truckers from Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkariya, and Chechnya will be meeting there with reporters. On the way back to Moscow, we’ll be holding similar meetings in Ossetia, Kransodar, and Rostov-on-Don, because there is a deficit of information in the media about the strike.
Why has Dagestan become the hottest spot?
In Dagestan, 90% of the drivers are private carriers. The republic is small, and so the strike is in everyone’s face. We have strikers spread across the entire country, but Russia is so vast that it’s not so noticeable, although a huge number of people are on strike. We’re going to summarize the numbers by April 10. We want to count the number of regions in which there are protest camps, and the number of people in these camps, as well as where the camps are, and where they were until the police dispersed them.
We will try and give an overall picture for every city in Russia. It’s complicated. In Petersburg alone, there are more than 200 parking lots, and we have to make the rounds of all of them. There are also people not involved openly in the protest, but who support it and have parked their trucks. We have to take them into account, too. Currently, not even the traffic cops and the police have those stats. But I can say for sure that at least half of all truckers have now stopped working as of today. In terms of numbers, that’s more than a million trucks.