The new round of truck drivers’ strike shows signs of politicization of economic protest in Russia
BY IRINA MEYER (OLIMPIEVA)
On March 27, Russia’s long-haul truck drivers announced an indefinite nationwide strike against the toll collection system Platon. The system was established in November 2015 to collect an additional tax on load-bearing tractor-trailers. The truckers consider the toll to represent triple taxation, as it was added to the existing transport tax and fuel excise tax. Another reason for drivers’ indignation is that the tax will be collected by a company owned by the son of the Russian oligarch Arkady Rotenberg, one of President Putin’s long-time cronies. Essentially, they see it is a private toll system.
The strike is the second nationwide action by truck drivers against Platon. The first wave of protests swept across Russia at the end of 2015, bringing into the streets thousands of truckers in 43 regions. The most dramatic protests took place in December of that year, when hundreds of trucks drove to Moscow in slow-moving caravans, threatening to blockade the vitally important Moscow Ring Road. The protests largely died out in January, though several protest camps remained in place through the spring of 2016. The government did not meet the main demand of the protesters, to cancel the Platon system entirely, but it did postpone for a year the introduction of the maximum tariff and considerably reduced the noncompliance fines.
The deferred tariff increase, which went into effect in March 2017, precipitated an escalation in protests against Platon. According to the Association of Haulers of Russia (OPR), more than half a million truck drivers are already on strike, with major protests taking place in Dagestan, where almost 100% of truckers refuse to drive. Despite the impressive scale of the protest, the start of the strike went almost unnoticed by the public and political analysts, probably because attention was diverted to the anti-corruption actions of the Anticorruption Foundation (FBK) and the arrest of its head and opposition politician Alexey Navalny, which occurred one day before the strike, and the April terrorist attack in the St. Petersburg metro. However, the new truckers’ strike deserves a closer look, as it reflects significant trends in Russian economic protest.
What is new about the new truck drivers’ strike?
While the overarching goal of the protest remains the same, the total cancellation of the Platon tax, the new strike comes with political demands as well, such as calls for the resignation of the Russian government, along with expressions of distrust in the president. An appeal to President Putin as the sole guarantor of economic stability and the last resort for justice has been typical of Russian protests over the last few years. However, the political mood of the populace has changed, and amazingly quickly: it took drivers less than one year to change the slogan “President, help us” that dominated the previous year’s protests to slogans expressing lack of trust in the president.
Just as quickly, drivers have moved from calling for the dismissal of the minister of transportation—the most radical demand of last year’s protests—to demanding the resignation of the whole government. The lineaments of the argument have also changed dramatically, with the focus shifting from accusing the ministers of professional incompetence to accusing the country’s leadership of corruption. As one of the regional OPR leaders put it, it is not trucks but yachts that are destroying Russia’s roads.
Politicization is growing as the government and official media keep ignoring the protest. Whereas at the launch of the strike the organizers “camouflaged” political calls with economic demands and barely mentioned them, during the May 1 demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg, political demands dominated the placards and slogans, second only to the total cancellation of Platon, thus pushing economic demands down toward the bottom of the list.
While the striking truckers continue to distance themselves from politics, they openly accuse the ruling party, United Russia, and its chair, Dmitry Medvedev, of bearing responsibility for the economic problems they face and of failing to fulfill campaign promises. As in 2016, however, the protesters also refuse to cooperate with any opposition parties, for fear of being used by politicians. Nor are they in any hurry to collaborate with trade unions, whether official or alternative ones, for fear of losing their organizational independence.
The new protest is better organized than last year’s because it is being coordinated by OPR. A grassroots organization that emerged spontaneously from the wave of last year’s protests, OPR officially registered a week before the new strike began. The main protest strategy has been modified from explicit radical protest actions to long-term nonviolent resistance, a quiet refusal of truck drivers to transport cargo unless the government meets their demands. This stalemate is expected to cause significant economic damage and has already led to a shortage of perishable goods in some regions. The lack of radical actions such as road blockades or truck convoys creeping toward Moscow and blocking traffic in the process, which attracted significant attention during previous protests, is probably another reason for the low interest on the part of the media and the population in the new strike.
Politicization of economic protest: Pros and cons
The main thing that observers can learn from the truck drivers’ protests is that we are witnessing the politicization of economic protests, fueled by the inability or unwillingness of the Russian government to meet protesters’ demands. Platon is only the tip of the iceberg: many problems have accumulated in cargo transport and in the economy in general that cannot be solved without infringing on the interests of Russian oligarchs. Overall, the new truck drivers’ protest proves once again that Russia will not be able to solve its mounting economic problems without instituting major changes in the political system. The strategy of ignoring the situation and withholding information that the Russian government pursues instead of dealing with large-scale economic protests would be expected to facilitate their further politicization.
However, the politicization of economic protests so far is more about using political threats to gain leverage than about demanding political change. (In this, it is akin to the truckers’ threat of using their crowbars against Rotenberg if they are “pushed to the wall.”) Despite the strong political demands and anti-corruption rhetoric, the truckers’ strike is still mainly aimed at changes in the tax system, not the political system. Even the openly expressed distrust in the president, which marks a significant qualitative shift in truckers’ attitudes, is more a warning to Putin than a true denunciation of him. However, the protest does mark the evolution of economic protesters’ political mood toward greater politicization and the erosion of the social contract between the citizenry and the authorities. Unless the government finds an appropriate response, we should expect these trends to continue.
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