Mikhail Kurbatov. Photo: Yulia Koroleva. All rights reserved.Russia’s truck drivers have been battling against a new road toll system for more than two years now — with varying degree of success. The independent Union of Truck Operators of Russia (OPR) has become the backbone of this protest, and was formed specifically in response to a new road tax introduced in 2015 and its electronic collection system. The union now has more than 500 members, with 7,000 supporters regularly donating money. In December, OPR was forced to register with the Ministry of Justice as a “foreign agent”. The truck drivers decided to respond with a ten-day national strike.
With kickoff fast approaching, Mikhail Kurbatov, a long-haul truck driver from Nizhny Novgorod and one of the union’s founders, told oDR about how law enforcement is trying to scare truckers off, why truck drivers aren’t ready to accept the regulations around road tax collection — and how they plan to ban to get rid of the Platon system entirely.
Why did long-haul truck drivers started to protest?
Mikhail Kurbatov: It all started when the Platon electronic tax collection system [ETC] was put into operation in 2015. Platon ETC is a specialised heavy truck tolling system: the driver must register with it and then install a cabin-mounted device that calculates the distance the truck travels and the amount of toll to be paid. Currently the toll size is one rouble 91 kopecks per kilometer. The initial fine for non-compliance is 400,000 roubles (£5,000) increasing up 1,000,000 roubles (£12,600) for the second offence.
Protests against Platon ETC have built up gradually. Many truck drivers were scared by the fines and registered with the ETC because they had to. The system was put into operation, but it didn’t kick in instantly. It was a nailbiter: the prospect of getting fined mean that everybody was unable to work. All this jump started the first protest on 11 December.
Many truck drivers came forward, but the authorities responded with force: all the highways were watched by the cops and every truck was pulled over
We called this campaign “The Snail”: the idea was to drive our trucks at five kilometres per hour and block up the federal highways. At the time I was in Tyumen region taking part in the protest action. Cops arrested everybody at the head of the truck column. But the action brought zero results: the government simply ignored us.
"Platon doesn't only rob truck drivers, it robs the whole population of the Russian Federation" - Alexander Kotov in December 2015. Source: Youtube / Novaya Gazeta.
In response, Alexander Kotov, who at that moment was the leader of the Inter-Regional Trade Union of Professional Drivers (MPVP), recorded a video and posted it on YouTube. He called on other truck drivers to self-organise and drive towards Moscow to demand negotiations with the government and, ideally, rescind the Platon ETC. A similar video was posted by Andrey Bazhutin, one of the key players in our protests. He was a regular truck driver and got elected as the leader of the protest campaign in St Petersburg. Later, in April 2016, Bazhutin was elected as the Chairperson of the Union of Truck Operators.
How did truck drivers respond to these YouTube videos?
MK: Many truck drivers came forward, but the authorities responded with force: all the highways were watched by the cops and every truck was pulled over. A highway patrol officer would produce a paper for the driver to fill out, specifying his name, license plate and ID number. The driver would have to confirm it by signing a statement saying “I refuse to take part in the protest action and the law has been explained to me.” I told the cops this was illegal and wouldn’t sign any papers. They tried to push the paper into my cabin, took my ID and recorded my personal data. Moral pressure, basically.
"Who allowed Rotenberg to rob us on the road?" - this sticker referers to the fact the company that operates Plato, RT-Invest Transport Systems, is part-owned by Igor Rotenberg, the son of Arkady Rotenberg, a close Putin associate. (c) Natalya Shkurenok. All rights reserved.Still, we all managed to get together outside of Moscow. Two camps were set up: in the town of Khimki and on the 91st km of the Moscow Ring Highway. I was in Khimki with my truck and 50 more vehicles, half of them trucks. We were perfect strangers — people came from as far as Arkhangelsk and Vologda, everybody was outraged and ready to stand their ground. There were so few of us at this protest, because the government kept us from organising and getting together. I think Moscow would have come to a standstill if all the protesting truckers had surrounded it.
We realised we needed an organisation. But we were total rookies, nobody had any hands-on experience in public activism
When Kotov noticed how few of us had showed up, he said: “Let’s call it a day and just go home.” The response was: “No, we won’t back out. We are here, we’ll stay here and we’ll carry on.” That was the moment when Andrey Bazhutin said: “You’re destroying the protest, look how many people support you!”
The leader we all had been counting on just wimped out. We had to decide who was going to stay committed and keep on setting up small protesters’ truck camps. These camps were springing up both in the Moscow area and across the whole country!
So, what did you decide to do next?
MK: We went out searching for a registered non-profit that could file requests to officially negotiate with authorities. Eventually, we got in touch with Dalnoboyshchik [Long Haul Trucker] Association that existed at the time alongside TUPD, Kotov’s organisation. We went to see and meet Valery Voytko, their representative. At the meeting he said: “I haven’t got the slightest interest in what you have to offer. But in case it’s me who you need, okay, I’ll listen.” Everybody was so pissed off! You have people coming to join forces with you, and he acts as if he’s some kind of big shot.
Photo: Yulia Koroleva. All rights reserved.We had no leader and it was high time we elected one. We drove out to the protest camp in Khimki, got together in a café. After talking, we decided that our best candidate was Andrey Bazhutin, who knows how to articulate ideas, listen to people and express their interests. He became the leader of our protest movement.
What movement? You didn’t have one then – you were just organising yourselves.
MK: Absolutely! We realised we needed an organisation. But we were total rookies, nobody had any hands-on experience in public activism.
We decided we wanted to establish something similar to regional unions — these would join the nation-wide organisation, which in its turn will interact with the government. Lawyers, however, advised us to set up an NGO that can exercise the full power of public control.
During the inauguration meeting we agreed to start a nation-wide organisation. We called ourselves the Union of Truck Operators of Russia.
Are you implying there's no hierarchy in your organization?
MK: Let me explain how it works. The Chairperson does not make decisions. The Board does not make decisions, it only approves them. Any member of the organisation has the right to bring up a proposal. If the proposal makes sense and has a potential benefit for the entire organisation — it is submitted to the Board for consideration and then voted. In case the proposal might involve some critical outcomes — it must be discussed with organisation members. Regional coordinators pass the proposal over to regional boards and the latter get feedback from local members. The regional coordinator then comes back to the Board and articulates the decision that was voted at a regional level. It’s a 100% flat organisation, 100% democracy.
How many regions does your organisation incorporate now?
MK: Forty five regions are affiliated with the union, it’s hard to give a more accurate estimate. It’s a young organisation. We’re evolving through trial and error. When somebody is unhappy with something — he simply walks away. I think that the chart of increase and decrease in organisational membership closely resembles a birth and mortality rate chart.
It’s a young organisation. We’re evolving through trial and error
When were on strike from 27 March through to mid June this year, we had a flurry of applications for membership. Regional coordinators just weren't fast enough to process applications. Many truckers even got pissed off at us: “What kind of organisation is this?!” But our coordinators truck drivers just the same as them, not public activists or management experts.
How does someone apply for membership?
MK: We have a feedback form posted on our website. The regional coordinator will call the applicant after the latter fills out the online application. We proceed with a phone interview: it’s person-to-person, very low profile, we ask simple questions and try to understand motivation behind the decision. Some people say: “Help me find a job.” These are not our people, we aren’t a recruitment agency.
The OPR column at the May Day demonstration in St. Petersburg. Source: OPR.Human motivation is what matters most. If a person understands what we are fighting for and wants to join us — we then send him a membership form.
Am I correct in assuming that Platon ETC served as the catalyst for the formation of the organisation?
MK: For the most part, yes. That was the trigger, the last straw. But we had our share of trouble prior to that. The thing is, all our disgruntled truckers were classic “couch activists”. We communicate through a dedicated radio channel and everybody keeps airing their grievances. We have plenty of reasons to protest apart from the Platon system.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has announced on TV that more than 900,000 individuals had already registered with Platon ETC. Does it mean that not everyone opposes it?
MK: We work the trucking routes, we talk on the radio, and we know that the majority of truck drivers were forced to register, that they are afraid of getting fined. I, for one, have never registered with Platon ETC.
Could you explain in layman's terms how much money Platon ETC is supposed to toll and where does this money go to?
MK: A cargo truck has an average mileage of 100,000 km a year. The official number of drivers registered with the system (900,000) must generate 177.3 billion roubles annually. However, statistics say that the system has tolled little over 37 billion roubles in two years. Because nobody pays. Truckers switch on the toll transponder only when they drive past a toll booth, since they don’t want to get fined. But they are unwilling to pay the toll nevertheless.
We see this as the destruction of the private trucking industry market and its subsequent monopolisation. Private shops and stores have been almost completely wiped out by supermarket chains
The government gave assurances that 10 billion roubles will be spent to pay off federal loans for highway construction. Additional 10 billion will be paid to Platon’s owner under the concession agreement. The rest of the funds will allegedly be spent on highway renovation and maintenance.
The government report says that 16 billion roubles were spent on highway-over crossings, regional and inner-city highways. Another 10.6 billion roubles were paid to the concession holder for ETC maintenance. In other words, Platon ETC tolls generated 22 billion roubles and expended 26 billion for its own maintenance. It looks like the federal budget has even sustained losses: 3.5 billion roubles of taxpayers’ money to be precise.
What other issues do long haul truckers face?
MK: Fuel taxes are the scam of the century, the government pulled this off in a blink of an eye and everybody just ate it up. It made sense, when fuel taxes were imposed: why would a cab driver pay the same tax as a retired senior who drives to his country house once a week? All car owners had to pay the same transportation tax that was scheduled to be substituted by excise duties which would be used to top up the federal highway trust fund and highway repair and renovation. Everybody endorsed the idea. The fuel tax was imposed… However, the legislators said that they couldn’t lift the transportation tax since it was the source of budget funds for regional highway renovation!
Political parties in Russia are not meant to articulate somebody’s problems, they are a means to blow off steam
As a result, all car owners are currently bear the full brunt of a double tax burden! And the fuel tax keeps growing. The fuel price has doubled since 2012. We used to pay 17-18 roubles per litre, now we pay 36 roubles.
The transportation tax, the diesel excise duty, and then the Platon system…
MK: Don’t forget the tax on self-employment.
It looks like soon you will have very little incentive to work
MK: It’s going in that direction! We see this as the destruction of the private trucking industry market and its subsequent monopolisation. Private shops and stores have been almost completely wiped out by supermarket chains. Now they are bearing down on us. Soon the market will be owned by large cargo transport companies. Poke around and you'll find that the majority of them are tied in with the government. Everybody knows that.
Are you ready go political as an organisation? Does it make sense to seek support from the politicians to be more effective in problem solving?
MK: The Union’s underlying principle excludes support for any political party. We distance ourselves from any joint actions. All these political organisations are horses of the same color. You bet on a chestnut horse, I bet on a black one — it doesn’t matter, because it still the horse owner who gets the profit.
Political parties in Russia are not meant to articulate somebody’s problems, they are a means to blow off steam. If you find yourself in trouble, you go and seek comfort with your Mom, because you know you’ll get a pat on the back, while your Dad will just say: “You had that coming.” You get your pat, you feel good, but that’s it. The problem is still there. Political parties offer the same “pats on the back” intended to make you feel okay and spill it all out. But they never solve problems.
"I'm also a trucker!" reads this sign as part of a flashmob earlier this year to support Russian truckers' protest. Source: VK. On the other hand, I can’t say we shy away from politics. Each Union member has his or her political preferences, we just aren't vocal about them, so that we don’t fight each other.
What are you planning for the future?
MK: Very few members of our union have registered with Platon ETC. We have drivers with toll transponders installed in Trans-Baikal, Irkutsk region and Buryatia — they truck cargo to China. Technical inspectors check their devices and can stop them from crossing the border if the transponder is not installed. But nobody pays the toll, the transponder simply hangs there on the windshield like a soapbox. We are not fighting to decrease the Platon toll rate, we strive to ban it completely.
Could you tell us about any upcoming action?
MK: We plan to go on strike 15-25 December in all locations where the Union has its chapters. Truckers will drive out and set up truck camps with banners and posters. Our goal is to block traffic. We have been forced to register as a foreign agent with the Ministry of Justice starting 1 December. So, we had to reschedule our actions. We also intend to start monitoring the activities of Federal Transportation Inspection Service [Rostransnadzor]. Our lawyers have been training public oversight groups for a whole month now.
Have you thought of setting up a mutual aid fund to help pay fines for those truckers who got levied?
MK: Sure, we have plans to set up a mutual aid fund, but currently it's not that easy. We are constantly involved in some sort of long-term protest actions and many truckers face serious financial challenges. We can’t even dream of collecting regular membership fees, some truckers spend their entire income on making ends meet and paying off debts. Sometimes we do fundraising campaigns when somebody needs direct financial support. We put the word out and the truckers help fundraise on a voluntary basis, donating whatever they can. We have bank account details posted on our website, some truckers transfer money this way.
However, we haven’t had a single case of support request to pay off a Platon ETC fine – each case is appealed with the court.
You said you are not ready to partner up with political parties. What about grassroots organisations?
MK: Yes, we do collaborate with grassroots movements. The People's Movement for Housing Justice is one of them.
We helped tractor operators who had planned a march on Moscow. They contacted us and asked for help, we dispatched some truckers to Rostov-on-Don to work out a joint strategy. But everyone got busted by the police not far from Rostov. I went there and we spent two weeks in Rostov trying to get everybody out of jail. We tried reaching out to the Gukovo coalminers near Rostov, but they seem to avoid us like the plague. They are so full with “Putin, help us!” crap, still believe that the President is kept in the dark and will come to their aid as soon as he learns the truth. They turned out to be not ready for direct action.
Photo: Yulia Koroleva. All rights reserved.We helped Torfyanka and Dubki city park defenders and drove out to join their rally. We are open to anybody who supports freedom, equality and justice — we’re going in their direction. Our motto is ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Do you think that the truckers’ protests can transform into a general protest around social concerns?
MK: This is something we've been saying since our first protests kicked off. Somehow, we still can’t find ways to reach common ground with others and form a nation-wide movement. Each organisation leader has his or her own view of things, unique understanding of issues. Every now and then we join forces for one-time actions, but our society is still very segmented and I find it hard to convince other people. Currently, I see no future for any kind of unification.
In Russia social activists often find themselves bullied and under pressure.
MK: Child protection services tried to take Andrey Bazhutin’s children away before the kickoff of the March 27 strike. Before that, cops suspended his driver's license during one of our protest actions.
People used to feel compassion and care for each other. These days, other people’s tragedies are disregarded and shoved away. You’re okay if your fridge is full
The law says that Andrey had time to appeal this decision with the court. Despite all this he got pulled over on the highway, arrested, and had his driver’s license confiscated. His wife was pregnant at the moment and on bedrest. They have four kids. Child protection services were instantly at their residence claiming that the children had been left unattended. We kicked up a fuss and the media helped brush them away. Publicity scared them off. The next day Andrey was free. This was an attempt to cut the head off our organisation. The government simply doesn’t understand that it’s the Board of regional coordinators that’s at the head of the organisation. They will never stop us by getting rid of one person.
How does your family react to your new role?
MK: My work as a social activist eats up a lot of time. I am truck driver, this means I am away from my family most of the time one way or another. Some truckers end up getting divorced, but these are isolated incidents. Basically, our wives support what we do and are proud of us. In some regions truckers’ wives got into the act themselves. We constantly miss important deadlines and they help us perform mundane tasks, like posting stuff on the website.
Do you think the rest of the population supports you?
MK: I believe everybody can understand our sentiment. But they are too scared and unwilling to get proactive. Even my closest friends prefer to live by “keep a low profile while you’re okay” rule.
My estimate is that roughly 20% of the population are ready to support us, the rest are fine to stay passive. They are afraid their action could provoke another Maidan. Television actively forms public opinion. Society has practically lost the very notions of solidarity and humanism. People used to feel compassion and care for each other. These days, other people’s tragedies are disregarded and shoved away. You’re okay if your fridge is stacked. You couldn’t care less about your neighbour.
We try to address this issue as well, talking and listening to common people. And you know, it works. When we go on strike — people show sympathy and come to our protest camps with food and water. This gives us hope that our society is not doomed.
This interview is part of our series on Russia's civic activists. Check out this interview with Igor Yasin on freedom of assembly, the horror of Chechnya's LGBT crackdown and why framing LGBT rights in the right way is half the battle (the other half is regime interference).