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In St Petersburg, long-distance truck drivers are holding out for victory

Russia’s long-distance truck drivers have started a nationwide strike. But without support from political parties or other groups, how far can they go? Русский

Petersburg's trucker protest is part of a Russia-wide strike against the Platon system, which collects additional taxes from HGV operators. (c) Natalia Shkurenok. All rights reserved.On 27 March, Russia’s Association of Hauliers started a non-stop strike. From Russia’s Far East to the northwest, thousands of long-distance drivers have parked their trucks and vans along federal highways and local roads in protest. The main trigger for this protest, the second action of this scale in two years, is the Platon system, which collects an additional tax to compensate for damage done by heavy goods vehicles to Russia’s roads. It doesn’t help that Platon is operated by Igor Rotenberg, son of Arkady Rotenberg, a close ally of the Russian president, and inflicts heavy fines on those who don’t pay. 

But the strikers’ demands, which include canceling the Platon system of collecting road fees, and transport tax, as well as corrections to legal norms governing work and leisure, fuel tax, are not only economic. They’re also political. The truckers are calling for the resignation of the Russian government.

The drivers say this strike, which is supported by other organisations and drivers’ trade unions, is countrywide — truckers from 84 of Russia’s regions are participating. But if you watch national television, you’d have no idea there was such a large-scale protest going on. State television is keeping quiet, and the country is only aware of the issue thanks to opposition media, the internet and social networks. None of Russia’s officially registered political parties has officially supported the strikers yet. Only Solidarity, an opposition political movement, has so far offered help. 

Over the past two weeks, several regional protest leaders have been arrested. But the strikers’ trucks remain parked, and the strike organisers intend to keep on protesting until they get what they want.

A few days ago, I went to visit the truckers on the outskirts of St Petersburg. Here’s what they said.

Are you going my way?

“You’re looking for the truckers, right?” a fellow passenger asks me as she glances at my map of how to find the main group of truckers on the Petersburg-Moscow highway. “It’s not far, you’ll see it for yourself.”

“You know about the truckers’ strike?” I ask the friendly woman.

“Of course, everyone know about it round here. We drive past every day, they’re standing there with their flags and the police.”

“The truckers will hold out for victory, whatever happens next.”

The truckers’ strike is about 10 minutes from Petersburg’s southeast Kupchino metro station along the Moscow highway which leads out of the city. You see it instantly – two columns of heavy goods vehicles that clearly are not going anywhere. The trucks are parked close to one another on the hard shoulder. Practically every rig has a light blue flag with the letters “OPR” (the acronym for the Association of Hauliers of Russia) in the centre. Many trucks are covered in slogans: “I’m taking part in the All-Russia Strike on 27 March. Are you?”, “Who allowed [Igor] Rotenberg to rob us on the roads?”, “Platon – get out!”

The trucks have been here since 27 March. It’s usually quiet and empty in between the trucks. The highway here is quite narrow and usually rammed with traffic going from Petersburg to Novgorod, Moscow or back again, so there’s not much space for walking around or gathering people together. To find the drivers on duty, you can either ask a police officer (the police are parked here 24 hours a day) or look up at the drivers’ cabins — one of the trailers has been turned into a strike headquarters. 

Solidarity city

“Would you like some tea?” Sergei Vladimirov asks me as he sets a plate of sweets before me. He’s driver from Petersburg, and an OPR leader. “Don’t be modest, we’ve got lots of tea and sugar. Petersburgers are helping us out!” 

On my first visit to the truckers, on 1 April, Andrei Bazhutin, OPR’s main leader, is just being released from detention, so I meet his fellow team members instead. We’re drinking tea and talking amongst ourselves when the polythene sheet that covers the entrance is brushed back to reveal a large, middle-aged man. “Have my comrades already been to see you?” he asks, looking around. “I am a communist, a member of the party’s city committee, I work as a taxi driver, my name is Valera. If you need any help from us, from the communists, then I’ll ring them and bring whatever you need.”

The truckers invite Valera to sit down.

“It’s good that you’ve got both economic and political demands,” Valera starts. “There’s no economics without politics!”

Valera, KPRF activist and taxi driver, talks to the truckers. (c) Natalia Shkurenok. “Help from you?” Yuri Yashkov, a driver from Novgorod, asks uncertainly. “And where were you and your help when we were parked up in Khimki [a district on the edge of Moscow] for five months? We asked your MP Valery Rashkin for help, he promised us so much, and then just took a photo with us and disappeared! And when we needed support in Nizhny Novgorod, when the police were arresting our lads, we asked the communists for help — they told us to go to hell!” 

“There’s all sorts in the party,” Valera responds, trying to calm Yuri down. “It’s not about [Gennady] Zyuganov or Rashkin. We, the communists, are together with the proletariat, and we have common goals — restoring the country! Anyway, I brought you something…”

“Lots of people had their picture taken with us when we were in Khimki! But it was ordinary Muscovites who really helped us, ordinary Russians who felt sympathy for us”

Valera roots about in his bag and pulls out a… Communist Party flag. The truckers just laugh in response: “Now you’ll start taking photographs with our arms round one another and the flag in the background, and then where will you go? Take your banner back!” Valera quickly retreats.

“We’re not refusing your help, but we have to be careful now,” Sergei explains. “Lots of people had their picture taken with us when we were in Khimki! But it was ordinary Muscovites who really helped us, ordinary Russians who felt sympathy for us. We’re ready to join a protest march or another action, but no one’s proposed it so far, and there’s no parties, nor rights defenders together with us supporting our demands. Our main aim is to get our industry’s problems sorted out, unify all the private hauliers together for this — after all, the Russian government’s shut off their oxygen in recent years.” 

Postponed revolution 

Russia’s first trucker protests started back in November 2015, a few days before a new payment system (Platon) was due to start. The system’s name comes from the Russian for “payment per tonne”, and Platon was designed to collect an additional tax from long-distance truckers who carry loads bigger than 12 tonnes. The idea was that the money collected would go towards compensating the damage caused by trucks to Russia’s national highway network.

Platon is operated by RT-Invest Transport Systems, 50% of which belongs to Igor Rotenberg. The other half belongs to RT-Invest, which in turn is 25% owned by the powerful state corporation Rostec (itself controlled by another Putin ally, Sergei Chemezov). In effect, then, the Russian state owns only a quarter of the company’s shares. 

A year on, Russia’s political parties, movements and civic organisations are just beginning to look closer at what’s going on roads across the country

RT-Invest Transport Systems receives 10.6 billion roubles (£149m) from Russia’ federal budget for operating this system, and that’s on top of a forecasted 20-40 billion rouble (£280m-£560m) annual income. Part of the money collected by the Platon system, according to the original concept, should be transferred to the Russia’s federal Road Fund for repair works.

But Russia’s long-distance truckers have done their own maths and decided that they’re already paying too much for repairs to federal highways when they pay for fuel (the price of which includes a road repair tax) and paying their transport tax. This is why the day before Platon came online, hundreds of trucks were parked alongside Russia’s highways, slowing down traffic in the process.

In November 2015, a 600-strong column of trucks set off for Smolny in Petersburg, where the city administration is located. Highway police managed to partially change the trucks’ route, and the truckers and officials didn’t meet as a result. On the same day, truckers across Russia also tried to organise marches on Moscow, but they were blocked by local highway police.

Read: a personal account of Russia's 2015 trucker protest

At the beginning of December 2015, Andrei Bazhutin, a driver from St Petersburg, was elected the truckers’ official representative. After his election, Bazhutin set off with a dozen other drivers for Moscow to try and meet with the Russian leadership and hand over the strikers’ demands to Dmitry Medvedev and transport minister Maxim Sokolov. Konstantin Selin, a young film director, went with them, and later made the film Chronicle of the revolution that didn’t happen

Trailer for Konstantin Selin's film on the 2015 trucker protests. Source: Youtube.

A 15-strong truck column stopped in Khimki back then, and the drivers organised a picket outside the Russian Presidential Administration. They didn’t manage to get a meeting with government representatives, and they decided to continue protesting in Khimki instead — until 12 May 2016. The Communist Party, Yabloko and Alexei Navalny all supported the truckers publicly, but in the end no one joined them.  

A year on, Russia’s political parties, movements and civic organisations are just beginning to look closer at what’s going on roads across the country. When you ask OPR leaders why they didn’t ask political parties for help and sipport, they just answer: if they offer real help, we won’t turn it down, and if a mass movement emerges against the actions of the government, we’ll join it. But there’s no sign of any movement in kind.

“Our government is just trying to calm the people down”

Just before the March 2017 strike, the Russian government raised Platon tariffs by 25% — which means that drivers pay 1.91 roubles per kilometre instead of the planned 3.06. 

“Our government is just trying to calm the people down. They say, look, Platon doesn’t affect the prices of goods,” Igor Veresov, a Novgorod driver, explains. “And I explain to everyone: there’s at least six journeys locked into every litre of milk, and you need to pay for every one. A guy with a restaurant business came to me, I told him: in order to bring you a litre of milk, you need to first get the feed to the cows, and before that fertilizer, and then after packaging, and you need cardboard for that. We’re not striking because they’ve tried to cut us down to size, but because when we climb out of our cabins, we’re going to the same shops, and we see for ourselves how prices are rising. We’re also consumers!”

Many drivers are tearing up their contracts with Platon across the country, just so they can make some money 

The truckers tell me the kind of advice public officials give them: “you include the Platon fees into the haulage price, let the client pay for it.” But that means middlemen, and everyone will start including their own margins into the price of goods. 

“Sokolov, the minister of transport, told us in 2015 that the price of bread would stay the same,” Igor tells me. “But bread isn’t transported around, but what do you think happens, we make bread in the trucks ourselves? You have to get fertilisers for the fields, oil for cars, seeds for fields, grain, and then flour.”

A truck with the protest slogan: "Who allowed Rotenberg to rob us on the road?" (c) Natalia Shkurenok. Many drivers are tearing up their contracts with Platon across the country, just so they can make some money. And some of the strike participants, including Andrei Bazhutin, have sold their trucks just to survive while the head of the family is striking.


Signs of pressure

This year, the truckers’ strikes have begun with pressure and arrests against participants. On 27 March, Andrei Bazhutin was arrested for allegedly driving without a license. Apparently, the highway police had removed his license without telling him a while back. And though Bazhutin’s lawyer Dinar Idrisov managed to prove that no one had informed his client that his license had been removed, the authorities still kept Bazhutin under lock and key, albeit for 10 days less than originally planned.

“This didn’t stop the strike, we don’t have a power vertical in OPR,” Sergei Vladimirov tells me. “We have a horizontal. We can all replace one another. The authorities didn’t count on this. They arrest one person, another will take his place.”

Drivers from across Russia are taking part in the strike. (c) Natalia Shkurenok. Vladimirov tells me how more than 250 people have been fined and arrested across Russia since the strike started. In six regions there have been attacks on OPR leaders — local authorities have tried to scare them, their families, and strike coordinators have asked to have their names removed from the list of leaders.

“In Lipetsk, some gangsters came to see the OPR leader, then some public officials,” Sergei Ovchinnikov tells me. “They told him: you just think, you’ve got kids at school, your wife goes the shops. And in Krasnodar, a warrant was put out for Sergei Gritsenko, because the district detective put out an order for his arrest. There’s pictures of Gritsenko all over town, he’s had to go into hiding. Since the start of the strike, all the Petersburg leaders have had their phones blocked. Then there’s been constant calls from some companies offering services.”

United we stand

Two days later, I meet the truckers on Petersburg’s Moscow highway once again.

When I get there, Andrei Bazhutin is outside talking to some drivers from Dagestan. They have just arrived to join the strike: these men live and work in Petersburg, but they travel back regularly, transporting fruits and vegetables from home. These drivers are in regular contact with their relatives, among whom there’s quite a few long-distance drivers. According to them, and the videos doing the rounds on the internet, Dagestan’s good transport network is practically paralysed. Almost 90% of Dagestan’s goods carriers are individual entrepreneurs, and practically all these private car owners have supported the protest.

“The government has to pay attention to our industry, what’s happening in it, how it affects the country’s whole economy, the life of every citizen”

“Over the past year since the last strike, we’ve united, we have an organisation,” Andrei Bazhutin joins in. “We’ve driven all over the country, met with all the local leaders, agreed all of our demands and a programme of action. We’ve decided there’s no point in barricading the roads, that leads to a criminal charge. And if someone is convicted on a criminal charge, then that could disrupt our unity. Right now a lot of people are parked up across Petersburg, there’s almost 500 trucks, and we’re considering what to do next. Platon isn’t buckling, and we’re not going to give in.” As Bazhutin tells a press conference a few days later, there’s almost a million trucks taking part in this strike.  

The strikers also plan to stop goods traffic on the majority of Russia’s federal roads. As Bazhutin states, they’ve been informed that budget food products — grains, conserves, fruit, vegetables, vodka — in certain supermarkets have gone up in price.

Andrei Bazhutin, OPR and strike leader. (c) Natalia Shkurenok. “This is one of our goals — to get people to pay attention to us,” Bazhutin tells me. “And if indignant citizens come with their concerns to us, and not the authorities, then we’ll talk to them. We’ll explain how we’re not just trying to solve our own problems, but theirs too. The government has to pay attention to our industry, what’s happening in it, how it affects the country’s whole economy, the life of every citizen. And we won’t stop striking until the federal authorities come to the negotiating table with us and start fixing our problems.”

3 April witnessed tragic events in St Petersburg. As a result of a bomb attack on the metro, 14 people died, and many more were injured. The truckers’ strike has thus taken on a different meaning in the current climate. There’s already calls to increase penalties for terrorism, to ban all protest actions and mass meetings in the country. It’s clear that any clampdown will take its toll on the truckers’ movement, perhaps in the form of repressive methods.

A few days after the metro attack, I ring Andrei Bazhutin. He tells me that there’s no signs that law enforcement agencies are changing their behaviour. “I think the authorities have enough common sense and reserve not to use force against us. But the truckers will hold out for victory, whatever happens next.” 

 


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