Russia’s Independent Truckers Battle for Their Livelihood

The Truckers’ Battle
Milana Mazayeva
Takie Dela
April 10, 2017

Our correspondent spent time with striking truckers in Dagestan and listened to their grievances against the regime.

Ali goes to the Dagestani truckers’ strike every morning. He has four children at home, two of them underage. No one in the family earns money besides Ali.

“If I don’t work, the only thing I can count on is the child support benefit my wife gets, which is 120 rubles [approx. 2 euros] a month. But the powers that be are not going to use that on me to force me to leave. I’m in it till the end.”

***

A nationwide truckers’ strike kicked off on March 27 in several regions of Russia. The authorities were quick to react. Petersburg traffic police detained Andrei Bazhutin, chair of the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR), accusing him of driving without a license. The incident occurred on the strike’s first day. Bazhutin was taken to a district court and placed under arrest for fourteen days. The sentence was later reduced to five days, and Bazhutin got out of jail on April 1.

The difference between this strike and other protests is that none of the strikers intends to give up, despite the arrests, intimidation, and blandishments meted out by the authorities.

“The arrest took five days from life and upset my family,” says Bazhutin. “Otherwise, nothing has changed about the strike. We said we were going to shut down cargo haulage, and that is what we have been doing. We said we would set up camps outside major cities, and that is what we have been doing. Next, we’re going to be holding rallies and recruiting grassroots organizations and political parties to our cause. Dagestan has been shut down, Siberia has been shut down. Central Russia is also on our side.”

“Officials Rake in the Dough, While We Eke out a Living”: What the Strikers in Dagestan Are Saying

Vakhid: Who the heck are you? What channel are you with? We don’t believe you. You won’t change anything with your articles. We need Channel One out here. Lots of folks have been here. They’ve walked around and taken pictures, and there was no point to it.

Magomed: I’m striking with my dad and our neighbor. The three of us run a rig together. We chipped in and bought it. It fed three families, but now we cannot manage. Over half the money we earn goes to paying taxes, buying diesel fuel, and maintaining the truck, and now on top of that there’s this Plato. We’re in the red. We’re staying out on strike until we win.

Ramazan: Plato has forced us to raise the prices for freight haulage. This triggers a rise in prices in grocery stores. So we’re the villains who take money from the common people and hand it over to Rotenberg? No, I disagree with this. I don’t want that sin on my conscience.

Haji: I don’t have an eighteen-wheeler. I’m a taxi driver. I came here the first day to support my brothers and then left. But then I saw on the web the riot cops had been sent in, and I decided to join the truckers and strike with them. Are they enemies of the people who should be surrounded by men armed to the teeth? Are the riot cops planning to shoot at them? What for?

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

Umar: I pay Plato 14,000 rubles [approx. 230 euros] for a single run to Moscow and back. It doesn’t matter whether I have a load or I’m running empty. If this goes on, I’ll have to sell the truck. I don’t really believe they’ll abolish Plato, but I have a bit of hope. If I lose my job, my eldest son will have to quit school and support the family. He’s in his fourth year at the police academy.

Anonymous: We don’t have any watch or shift method here. We gave up on the idea because the people whose toes we’re stepping on are just waiting for us to do something that would enable them to charge us with conspiracy and a group crime. We made the decision that everyone would be striking on his own behalf. We have no leaders or chairmen. In 2016, we made a mistake: we elected one person to speak on our behalf. And what happened to him? After the first meeting, he was put on the wanted list and accused of extremism.

Isa: I’m not a long-haul trucker. I have a dump truck, but I decided to take part in the strike, too, because now I have to buy a pass that costs 2,000 rubles a month. What for? I live in town, and I never drive the truck out of town. I’m not causing damage to federal roads, why am I obliged to pay more than what I pay by law? I have four children to support.

Who Started it, or, The Damage Caused by Damage Compensation 

The strike was triggered by an increase in the toll rates for vehicles weighing twelve tons or more under the Plato road tolls payment system. The system was set up, allegedly, to offset the damage big rigs cause to Russia’s highways.

When Plato was launched in 2015, the rate was 1.53 rubles per kilometer. The truckers got the rate lowered to this rate through a series of protests, forcing the government to introduce discounted rates.

The second wave of protests kicked off because the rate was supposed to double to 3.06 rubles per kilometer as of April 15, 2017. After Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev met with members of the business community on March 23, 2017, the decision was taken to raise the rates by 25% instead of 50%, but the truckers did not give up on the idea of striking. According to Rustam Mallamagomedov, a representative of Dagestan’s truckers, they prepared for the strike in advance.

“I’ve been in the freight business since 2003. There were things in the past that outraged us, like rising prices and changing tariffs, but Plato has been beyond the pale.

As soon as we learned the rates would go up on April 15, we got ourselves coordinated and went out on strike. We wanted to strike on March 10, but recalling what happened in 2015, we decided to get the regions up to snuff, get in touch with everyone, and go on strike together. Before Plato was launched, we hadn’t even heard of it. We were just confronted with a done deal. Yeah, there had been articles about it on the web, but most truckers aren’t interested in news and politics. We went out on strike as soon as we realized what the deal was.”

The Truckers’ Demands: Abolishing Plato and Firing Medvedev

It is difficult to count the number of strikers. We know there are 39,000 heavy cargo vehicle drivers registered in Dagestan, and the truckers claim that nearly all of them have gone on strike. The strikers’ demands also differ from one region to the next. Only one demand is common to all regions, however: dismantling the Plato system.

“It affects each and every one of us, because prices of products will go up for end users,” Bazhutin explains. “The Plato system will be introduced for passenger vehicles, similar to Germany. Next, we have a number of professional demands, since the industry is on its knees. They include reforming work schedules, making sense of the weight and seize requirements, and generally reforming the transport sector. Our fourth point is forcing the government to resign and expressing no confidence in the president. This lack of confidence has been there and will remain in light of the fact that we have a Constititution, but the Constitution is honored in the breach. People’s rights are violated, and since the president has sworn to protect the Constitution, we have expressed our lack of confidence in him. We believe we have to do things step by step. There must be meetings, there must be dialogue.”

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

The Dagestani drivers’ list of demands includes access to central TV channels.

“We want to be heard,” insists Mallamagomedov. “The mainstream media are silent, although Dagestan is now on the verge of a revolution. Our guys categorically demand that reporters from the main TV channels be sent here. Only after that would they agree to communicate with the authorities.”

Timur, a member of the Makhachkala Jamaat of Truck Drivers (as they call themselves), lists, among other demand, deferred payment of loans during the strike, thus recognizing it as a force majeure circumstance. In addition, the drivers in Dagestan’s capital have demanded an end to the persecution of strikers and the release of jailed activists.

Platonic Dislike, or, Who Needs Plato?

Yuri, from St. Petersburg, has been driving an eighteen-wheeler since 1977. He has been involved in the strike since day one, going home only to shower and change his clothes. Yuri has calculations, made by a professor at the Vyatsk State Agriculture Academy, according to which the passage of one truck over a stretch of highway corresponds to that of three passengers cars, rather than sixty, as was claimed in a government report on the benefits of the Plato payment system.

When he voices his grievances against Plato, Yuri resorts to the Constitution, which stipulates that vehicles and goods should move unhindered on the roads, and forbids erecting barriers and charging fees. [I honestly could find no such clause in the Russian Constitution, but maybe I was looking in the wrong place — TRR.]

Dagestan has also prepared for the eventuality the regime will try and play on the driver’s political illiteracy. The truckers now can safely converse with officials from the Transport Ministry and defend their case by citing calculations and the constitutions of their country and regions.

“We pay the transport tax and the fuel excise tax. The average truck travels 100,000 kilometers annually,” explains Mallamagomedov. “If Plato were to charge the originally announced toll of 3.73 rubles per kilometer, that would have amounted to 373,000 rubles [approx. 6,150 euros] per year for one truck alone. The fuel excise tax amounts to ten rubles per kilometer. That’s another 400,000 rubles a year.”

“In 2013, Putin clearly said during his annual press conference there was money to build roads. What was lacking was the facilities to build them. At the time, the regional authorities even wanted to refocus these funds on other needs. What happened in two years? Why did the money suddenly dry up? We are willing to pay if necessary. No one has a greater stake in road construction than we do. The roads damage our trucks and send the depreciation through the roof. We suggested adding one or two rubles to the fuel excise tax, rather than enrichening a private company. But what ultimately happened?

“During the past two years, four rubles have been added to the fuel excise tax and Plato has been launched. The government makes five trillion rubles [approx. 82 billion euros] a year from the excise tax alone, although one and a half trillion rubles would suffice for road construction and maintenance. But all the roads are still the same.”

Akhmat lives in the Dagestani city of Manas. It has the largest number of striking drivers, two thousand, and just as many big rigs have been shut down. Akhmat readily admits he has never paid a kopeck to Plato.

“I get fines in the mail, but I don’t pay them and I don’t intend to pay them. The money we pay through the fuel excise tax should be more than enough to fund everything. When we fuel up with diesel, we should have already paid enough to build roads.”

According to intelligence gathered by the strikers themselves, only large companies with a stake in maintaining relations with the authorities are not on strike. All the independent drivers have been striking.

“We’ve been getting information that large retail chains are already experiencing problems supplying certain food products, that cheap products have begun to vanish from the shelves, and that fruits and vegetables, which are shipped through Dagestan, have also vanished,” says Sergei Vladimirov from St. Petersburg. “I’m not going to predict how far this will go.

“What matters is that it not lead to revolution or civil war, because the people’s bitterness can come out in different ways. As citizens and fathers, we wouldn’t want this to happen. But if there is no dialogue, there will be no peace.”

Milana Mazayeva interviews a striking trucker in Dagestan (in Russian)

The possibility of losing one’s livelihood is regarded especially acutely in the North Caucasus.

“In my homeland of Dagestan, around 70% of the men earn their living behind the wheel. It is their only income,” says trucker Ali. “If a man is deprived of the means to feed his family, he’ll be ready for anything. The factories have been shut down: there is no employment in the region. Then they’ll say we’re all thieves and bandits. I’m not saying we’ll go stealing, but this system robs us of our last chance to make an honest living. What should we do? Retreat into the forests?”

Ali has been in the Manas camp for four days. During this time, he has not only failed to change his mind but he has become firmer in his intention not to back down.

“Our guys are camped out in Manas, Khasavyurt, Kizlyar, and Makhachkala.

“We stop everyone who drives by and is not involved in the strike. We ask them to join us, to show solidarity. We are certain the consequences will affect everyone. Someone cited the example of a bottle of milk. He said that, on average, the price of a carton rises by one to three kopecks. The guys who made those calculations didn’t factor in that, before the milk hits the stands in the stores, you have to feed the cow, milk it, process the milk, and produce containers. They ignored the entire logistical chain that gets the milk to the stores, talking instead about a price rise of one kopeck.

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

“If the authorities do not respond to our demands, people will abandon their TV sets. Television is now saying that everything is fine, and that our only problems are Ukraine and Syria. Meanwhile, the country is impoverished.”

Plato’s branch office in Makhachkala claims the strike has in no way affected its operation. There were few drivers willing to pay in the first place. Most truckers look for ways to outwit the system.

“You cannot say that registration has stopped due to the strike. But we have the smallest percentage of registration in Dagestan,” says Ramazan Akhmedov, head of Plato’s Dagestan office. “Only one to two percent of truckers out of a total of 30,000 are in our system. Everyone else claims they didn’t get the fines. The system doesn’t work if a fine isn’t received, so it means they’re not going to pay.”

“Dagestan also lacks cameras that would record violations and issue fines. They are supposed to be installed before the end of the year. Most drivers travel within Dagestan, where there are no monitoring cameras, and when it is necessary to travel outside the region, they resort to tricks: they buy a temporary package or hide their license plates.”

What the Neighbours Say: Other Countries’ Know-How

Systems similar to Plato are used in many countries around the world, but not all of them have proved their worth, argue the Russian truckers. An OPR delegation visited Germany to learn the advantages and disadvantages of their system.

“The Germans blew it all when they agreed to pay tolls via a similar system,” recounts Sergei Vladimirov. “Three big companies pushed private carriers out of their livelihoods. Then they hired them to work for them and cut their pay in half. Germany is a total nightmare at the moment. A similar system for passenger vehicles is going online as of March 24. We can look forward to the same thing.”

But the carriers said there was no comparison between the quality of the roads in Russian and the west. Obviously, such factors as geography and the condition of roads when repairs are undertaken are quite significant.

“We were told about a similar scheme for collecting tolls in Germany,” says Timur Ramazanov. “I traveled around Germany with a local carrier. Along the way, we came across repairs of a new stretch of road. When I asked him why they were repairing a new road, the driver put a full cup of water on the dashboard and sped the truck up to 160 kilometers per hour. The water in the cup was shaking. That was the reason they were repairing that section of road. It would be unpatriotic, but we should hire the Germans to build our roads.”

Ramazan Akhmedov, head of Plato’s Dagestan branch, defends the system.

“When the system was just going online, we chatted with drivers from Belarus. They told us that, at first, their system wasn’t accepted by drivers. They tried to drive around the cameras, but now everyone pays. The system has proven its worth.”

“The Regime Is Out in Left Field”: The Authorities React to the Strike

The reaction of regional authorities to the strike has been mixed. There are regions where officials attend protest rallies on a daily basis, and there are others where they have been totally ignoring the strike.

Bazhutin argues that the closer you get to the capital, the less dialogue there is.

“The authorities at home in Petersburg have reacted quite languidly for some reason. They don’t want to talk with us. But the heck with them, we’ll wait them out.”

Yuri Yashukov is not surprised by the lack of a reaction on the part of federal authorities.

“How did the regime react to the anti-corruption rallies, organized by Alexei Navalny, which took place in all the big cities? Were they shown on television? Maybe in passing. But everyone is connected to the internet, and there you can see how many people came out for them. The only thing you can show on television is what villains the Ukrainians are, what rascals there are in Syria, and talk shows where people applaud the politicians.”

The only thing the regions have common in terms of how local authorities have reacted to the strike are arrests. There have been several dozen arrests. After Bazhutin was detained and later released, three truckers in Dagestan were jailed for ten to fifteen days. According to reports shared by the strikers on the social networks, there have been further arrests in Surgut, Volgograd, Chita, and Ulan-Ude.

Speaking to strikers on April 4, Yakub Khujayev, Dagestan’s deputy transport minister, asked everyone to disperse for three months and give the government time to draft proposals for abolishing Plato. The strikers immediately booed Khujayev, grabbed the megaphone, and took turns speaking. They urged each other not to succumb to the regime’s blandishments.

“The sons of our officials ride around in Mercedes Geländewagen Td cars, but I can’t afford to buy a Lada 14. Why? Did God make them better than me? How are they better than me?”

“Take the highway patrol in Dagestan. What is the highway patrol? They’re just the highway patrol, but they act like generals. I find it ten times easier to talk to Russian highway patrolmen than with our non-Russian highway patrolmen. They’re quicker on the uptake.”

“Look, brothers, they surrounded us with troops and try to frighten us with weapons. Are we going to let them scare us this way?”

“No!”

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

Khujayev claims that Russian National Guardsmen did not encircle the truckers, as was reported by various media outlets.

“It was reported on a Friday that the riot cops had kettled the truckers. Every Friday, the mosques are packed to the gills with folks who park their cars on the road. Near the spot where the truckers have their camp, there is a federal highway, as well as a fork in the road and a mosque. Every Friday, law enforcement officers work to prevent a traffic jam. They go there and ask people not to park their cars on the road, and they help the highway patrol clear it. The exact same thing happened on the Friday when there was the outcry about the Russian National Guard.”

The strikers argue that Prime Minister Medvedev’s meeting with businessmen, at which truckers were present, allegedly, was a fake.

“When we found out who represented us at such a high level. It transpired that one of them was a United Russia party member who didn’t even own a truck, and the other guy travels the country telling everyone what a good system Plato is. How could they represent us if they didn’t even mention the strike at the meeting?” asks Timur Ramazanov, outraged.

Mobilization by Mobile Phone: How the Truckers Use Social Networks

During the strike, the truckers have cottoned to social networks accessible on smartphones, although previously most drivers had ordinary push-button mobile phones. The most popular mobile app is the Zello walkie-talkie app.*  The OPR has its own channel on Zello, on which around 400 people are chatting at any one time. There are around 3,000 strikers signed onto the channel.

The app lets you use your smartphone like a walkie-talkie, albeit a walkie-talkie that operates through the internet. On the truckers’ channel, users not only share news from the regions, do rollcalls, and encourage each other but also advise each other about what to do in certain circumstances.

MAXMAX: Guys, under Article 31 of the Russian Federal Constitution, we have the right to assemble peaceably, but [the authorities] are citing Federal Law FZ-54 on rallies and demonstrations. I advise everyone to read it. All the details are there.

BRATUHA86: Guys, Surgut on the line. Vasily’s court hearing just ended. They charged him with holding an illegal assembly of activists and fined him 20,000 rubles [approx. 330 euros]. That’s how it goes. Tyumen, I heard it’s kicking off in your parts, too. They’re going to identify the most active strikers and fine them like Vasily.

VIRUSID: Fellows, let’s help out by crowdfunding the fine. Everyone chips in 100 rubles each. We’ll raise 20,000 in a jiffy.

ALEKSEYVADIMOVICH: Of course we’ll help out. There are over 300 users online right now and we’ll put the money together quickly.

KAMAZ222: Dagestan supports you. Tell me where to send the money.

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

1111: Fellows, what’s happening with you all in Dagestan? Is it true the riot cops want to put the squeeze on you? If that’s the way it is, I suggest humping it down there to support the guys.

FRTD: We could do that, but they won’t let us through if we drive in a convoy. We need to think about what to do without setting ourselves up.

Virtually no outside talk is permitted on the Zello channel. Anyone who is suspected of being a provocateur is immediately blocked. The strikers also use the social networks WhatsApp and Facebook.

“Within a year and a half, we have managed to rally an insane number of people around our flag. By and large, the alliance jelled on a professional basis,” says Bazhutin. “Communicating through social networks has really helped us. The guys even knew better than I did what was happened when I arrested. I didn’t know the police were going to release me, but they already knew.”

“Guys from other regions called me today. They had heard the riot cops in Dagestan were planning to disperse the strikers. They promised me that, if this were true, they would come and support them and prevent a clash,” says Mallamagomedov, echoing Bazhutin. “The strikers have been getting vigorous support from taxi drivers and van drivers. They don’t picket all day, but they show up often, bring us food and drinks, and give us pep talks. The talk on the social networks is that now they’re testing the system on large vehicles. Small-tonnage vehicles will be the next step, and then passenger vehicles.”

Digging Ditches and Dismantling Rails: Means of Combating the Strikers

The strike has been hindered not only by the arrests of activists. In one village, the authorities were especially creative. The truckers named the day when they would leave the village and head off to the strike camp. They would have to drive over a railway crossing to do this. In the morning, the eighteen-wheelers arrived at the crossing, and the drivers discovered the rails had been dismantled overnight, cutting off their only way out of the village.

In Rostov Region, the authorities dug a deep ditch around the parking lot where the strikers had gathered, referring to it as “emergency repairs.”

Mallamagomedov has been detained by law enforcement several times. In January 2016, Dagestan’s truckers met to discuss their common problems.

“We decided to establish our own association in the Republic of Dagestan. I was elected leader. After the meeting, I was put on the wanted list, although I wasn’t informed of this. On the Dagestan-Kalmykia border, I was forced to get off a bus and had to hitchhike home. Since then, I haven’t been able to visit Dagestan safely. I was placed on the list of extremists. When I call the police and tell them to take me off the list of extremists, because they know it’s not true, they promise they’ll take me off the list, but I’m still wanted.”

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

On April 5, Mallamagomedov was immediately picked up by police after a press conference in Moscow. Two men in plain clothes, who introduced themselves as criminal investigators, put Mallamagomedov in a car without plates and took him to an unknown destination. According to him, a case against him was cooked up in August 2016, when he was involved in a farmers’ tractor convoy in Rostov Region. The court order handed to Mallamagomedov on April 5 says he should have been jailed for ten days for an administrative offense, but he was released the evening of the same day. He doesn’t know why he was released, but says his attorney would be appealing to the court’s decision to sentence him to ten days in jail.

“My entire family—my two brothers and my father—are truckers,” says Mallamagomedov. “Several days ago, people came to my father’s house and demanded he sign a paper saying he would not be involved in the strike. ‘I undertake to attend all protests and rallies organized in support of the people,’ my father wrote on that paper.”

* On Monday, RBC reported that Russian federal communications and media watchdog Roskomnadzor would block the free walkie-talkie app Zello within twenty-four hours.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Andrei Bazhutin: “More than a Million Trucks Have Stopped Running Nationwide”

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.

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Andre Bazhutin (center) and comrades. Photo courtesy of Anna Artemieva/Novaya Gazeta

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.

Translated by the Russian Reader  

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Andrei Bazhutin. Photo courtesy of Anna Artemieva/Novaya Gazeta

 

“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

Rustam Mallamagomedov: Down by Law

Rustam Mallamagomedov in an ambulance after being beaten. Village of Dorozhnyi, August 22, 2016
Rustam Mallamagomedov in an ambulance after being beaten. Village of Dorozhnyi, August 22, 2016. Photo by Anna Artemieva

Arrest Dagestani Trucker Refuses to Report to Jail Voluntarily
Dmitry Rebrov
Novaya Gazeta
September 16, 2016

The Rostov Regional Court ordered the arrest of a Dagestani trucker who took part in the tractor convoy of Krasnodar farmers, but law enforcement officials “forgot” to detain him.

On September 16, the court considered Dagestani trucker Rustam Mallamagomedov’s appeal of an August 26, 2016, ruling by the Aksay District Court. The court had found the activist guilty of violation of Article 20.2.6.1 of the Russian Misdemeanors Code (involvement in an illegal political rally) and arrested him in absentia for ten days.

The regional court judge confirmed the district court’s ruling, despite the fact that, by law, a ruling of this kind can be issued only in the defendant’s presence. Mallamagomedov was not present at either hearing. According to his attorney, Valentin Pyshkin, this is the source of the conflict. The police “forgot” to detain the trucker preliminarily, so in spite of the administrative arrest issued against him, Mallamagomedov continues to remain at liberty to roam the streets [sic], and has no intention of voluntarily “correcting” the mistake made by law enforcement officers.

“The thing is there no standard procedure as to what the police should do now. An administrative arrest cannot be issued in absentia. This is nonsense. For an individual to be put under administrative arrest he has to be present in the courtroom. At any rate, he is not obliged to report to jail himself. He bears no responsibility for failing to report to jail. Moreover, he cannot be detained and sent there forcibly, either, since this is not stipulated by Russian law,” said Pyshkin.

“Only arrest on criminal charges can be ordered in absentia,” the lawyer stressed.

In this case, the court can issue a detention order before the defendant is detained, Pyshkin explained. But this principle is not valid in the case of administrative [misdemeanor] violations. The lawyer was hard pressed to say what law enforcement officers would do now. In his opinion, it would be easier just to abolish the questionable ruling. That, however, is not what has happened.

“The Rostov Regional Court did not listen to our arguments, nor, when the case was heard on the merits, did it want to examine any of the witnesses we had brought to the hearing. And all our motions were rejected,” said Pyshkin.

When our correspondent asked about the trucker’s current whereabouts, the attorney declined to answer, saying that the telephones could be bugged. He did confirm, however, that Mallamagomedov was currently not in Rostov Region.

Beaten by the police when the tractor convoy was dispersed, the trucker himself does not admit his guilt.

“Aside from the fact we didn’t organize any political rally, it was the police who didn’t let the farmers and us leave our camp. I was elsewhere the day our other comrades were arrested,” Mallamagomedov explained to Novaya Gazeta by telephone.

“On August 22, the day before the convoy was dispersed, I was beaten by the police guarding the camp. After that, I went to the hospital and the Investigative Committee, where I stayed until the evening of August 23. On the morning of the 24th, I went to the police station to find out how the guys were doing. I was detained there, but police did not draw up an arrest sheet. I felt sick while I was sitting there and left again in an ambulance,” he added.

Nevertheless, during his time at the precinct, police officers confiscated the driver’s internal passport without explanation.  Apparently, it was then they drew up the charge sheet that was the basis for the Aksay District Court’s August 26 ruling to arrest the missing activist. After receiving medical treatment, the trucker had no intention of returning to the police station voluntarily, since he had been held there without processing of the proper papers, that is, illegally. He could not attend the August 26 hearing, either, because he was undergoing outpatient treatment.

When it is a matter of arrest, the individual is usually detained first, and then taken before a judge. Then he is sent from the courtroom to jail for ten days. The court’s administrative ruling is thus implemented. The majority of truckers and farmers detained during the tractor convoy were taken to the police station and sentenced to jail terms ranging from five to ten days, in that order. They have served their sentences and returned home long ago.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Anatrrra for the heads-up

_________

According to Jim Jarmusch, director of the film by this name: “Down by law, at the time in the mid-80s, was kind of in use on the streets as meaning a very close connection with somebody. If somebody was down by law, they were close to you or you would protect them. I know that, earlier, in prison slang, if somebody was down by law, and they got out before you, they would contact your family or look after people outside if you needed them to. So it meant something very close or a code. I really liked the contradiction of that, being something that sounds like being oppressed by the law, which of course under that condition is where the slang came from. So, I liked that contradiction of it. And I liked it also in terms of the film being contradictory in that they are oppressed by the law but they also become down by law with each other.”

Jimmy ain’t gonna rat on me. We’re down by law.

Regime Cracks Down on Protesting Krasnodar Farmers

“They Have Really Gone After Us”
After returning to Krasnodar Territory, participants of tractor convoy feel the heat from the very people against whom they complained
Anna Bessarabova
Novaya Gazeta
August 28, 2016

The farmers after their tractor convoy was dispersed. They have been sentenced to three to ten days in jail. Not a single independent human rights activist came to their court hearings in the village of Kazanskaya. Photo courtesy of Anna Artemieva/Novaya Gazeta

The farmers were threatened during the convoy. We will stage a second Novocherkassk massacre for you and dice you like cattle in a slaughterhouse, they were told by security officers, who after the protest was dispersed have been zealously carrying out checks of their homes and farms.

Around thirty FSB officers raided Nikolai Borodin’s farm in the village of Kazanskaya, which they turned upside down. The tax inspectorate has been looking into property owned by the relatives of protest leader Alexei Volchenko. Other men have been interrogated by the prosecutor’s office. Nina Karpenko escorted her driver Seryozha Gerasimenko, a young fellow with three small children, to the detention center. He has been jailed for three days. The other men were also issued misdemeanor charge sheets: the authorities even went to the trouble of delivering the documents to their homes. The hearings took place on the weekend (Saturday) in the Kavkazsky District. Sergei Gorbachev was jailed for five days, Slava Petrovsky, for four days, Andrei Penzin and Semyon Smykov, for three. The rest of the protesters are waiting their turn.

“Nearly everyone in the villages has been paid visits by prosecutors and police,” farmer Ludmila Kushnaryova told Novaya Gazeta. No one knows what they are looking for. Or what the charges will be, either. The pressure has not stopped.”

“I cannot believe this is happening to us, in our country. We had no idea it would be so frightening,” said Nina Karpenko. “They have really gone after us. The deputy chief of the district traffic police escorted my tractor drivers and me to the hearings. He followed us for 250 kilometers. Whatever for? There were two people working in the courthouse on Saturday: the judge and the chairman. Didn’t they have anything else to do?”

Nikolai Maslov and Oleg Petrov, two convoy participants jailed for ten days, have been transferred to Novocherkassk.

“Dad called early this morning. He said everything was alright. But who knows. Maybe he just didn’t want to scare us?” said Igor Maslov, worried about his father. “We still haven’t found lawyers for them. How much do you think they’ll gouge us?”

Alexei Volchenko’s colleagues and friends have been looking for him. He has not been answering calls to any of his phones. He is not to be found in his home village. He has disappeared. The last thing the farmers heard was that Volchenko had been fined in Rostov Region. He made it back to Kuban, where he was detained again and sentenced to ten days in jail in Ust-Labinsk. The authorities are now, allegedly, preparing to charge him with extremism.

The Russian government, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and the Russian Investigative Committee have been pretending nothing is happening in Kuban. The official TV channels have been airing election campaign spots about the ruling party’s ability to listen to people, but they have not aired any stories about the events in Krasnodar Territory.  They have maintained their silence for a week.

Alexander Popkov, a lawyer with the Agora International Human Rights Group, Boris Titov, federal commissioner for the rights of entrepreneurs, former Federation Council member Ivan Starikov, and Russian Federal Public Chamber chair Georgy Fyodorov have promised to help the participants of the tractor convoy.

“Obviously, the farmers have committed no offenses, and the wild imitation of law enforcement involving riot police and arrests for a ‘rally’ in a cafe are aimed at suppressing a peaceful and reasonable protest campaign,” said lawyer Alexander Popkov. “The first thing we are going to do is file appeals, and then we are going to see whether there is any point in beating our heads against the courts in Russia or whether we should immediately file a class-action complaint with the European Court of Human Rights.”

“I have been in contact with the farmers, their wives, and their children. They are drafting an appeal, and next week we plan to hold a big press conference in Moscow,” Ivan Starikov informed Novaya Gazeta. “Their problem needs to be solved systemically. People’s land shares are being confiscated, and there are around 300,000 victims of this practice nationwide.”

According to Valentin Pyshkin, attorney for convoy participants Nikolai Maslov, Oleg Petrov, and Sergei Vladimirov, the farmers have filed an appealed against the court decisions that sentenced them to ten days in jail.

“But we won’t get an answer earlier than Monday,” the lawyer explained. “On August 26, I was not admitted to the Novocherkassk detention center and allowed to talk with my clients, because, you see, according to their internal regulations, prisoners are entitled to representation by a lawyer only from two to four in the afternoon. It is an odd rule. But at four o’clock I had a court hearing in Aksai. Rustam Mallamagomedov from the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR) was on trial. On August 24, he had gone to the police station on his own to find out what had happened to the detainees, and the police didn’t let him back out of the station.”

Truckers Ready to Fight for Farmers 

Andrei Bazhutin, chair, Russian Association of Carriers (OPR):

“We arrived from Petersburg to Moscow, where we were getting ready for a car convoy through Siberia. We learned about the arrest of the tractor convoy on the morning of August 23 and changed our plans. We went to support the tractor drivers. We were stopped by police for eight hours on the Moscow Ring Road, and eight hours in Voronezh Region. Along the way, we were written up for violating Article 20.2 of the Misdemeanors Code [“Violation of the established rules for organizing or holding an assembly, rally, demonstration, march or picket”  — Novaya Gazeta], but they did not stop us from traveling further.

“By the time we got to Rostov, two of our activists [who had been with the tractor convoy from the beginning — Novaya Gazeta] had been sentenced to ten days in jail, while another two had been fined 10,000 rubles. Now we are here in Rostov: we have four big rigs and some cars. We are working with the lawyers and human rights activists and trying to help the guys out. We think it is necessary to gather journalists and advance on Krasnodar Territory to draw attention to these court hearings. Center ‘E’ [the Interior Ministry’s Center for Extremism Prevention — TRR] has intimidated everyone here.

“We have also contacted the miners on hunger strike in Gukov and agreed to support each other. Our demands will be voiced at their next picket too.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Read my previous postings about the protest by Krasnodar farmers and the regime’s crackdown against it.