Russian truck drivers face off against government in protest | News | DW | 02.12.2015
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Russian truck drivers face off against government in protest

Truck drivers across Russia are protesting against a tax hike for heavy vehicles. Authorities say it is needed to fix roads, but the drivers warn of far reaching consequences, writes DW's Emma Burrows from Moscow.

Drivers had planned to protest by blocking key roads in Moscow but, according to a representative from their coordination centre, they were stopped from entering the capital. They have also been threatened with legal action by the head of Russia's road agency if they sabotage the flow of traffic.

The authorities are also accelerating legislation which would hinder the truckers' ability to organize future protests. The proposed law would equate a rally of motor vehicles with a "public assembly" which requires the authorities to be notified in advance. Organizing a rally without permission could attract a fine of several thousand euros.

Alexander Lushavin from the truck driver coordination centre which is helping to organise the protests said the drivers have set the authorities a deadline of the 3rd December to talk. The levy means each company or lorry driver must now pay 1.5 rubles (0.02 euros) for each kilometer a heavy truck travels on Russia's roads.

The authorities say they hope to collect more than 40 billion rubles (563 million euros or $600 million, ) from the new charge in 2016 which would help compensate for road damage. Drivers are protesting because they say they already have to pay transport taxes and because the general quality of Russia's roads remains poor.

"There aren't roads [here] like the ones they want us to pay for," one driver said. "We're in agreement if they build the roads like they do in Europe. That would be ok."

The president's friend

The anger at the new charge, which was introduced in November, has seen 1,000 drivers reportedly take part in a protest in the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan as well as in cities such as St Petersburg and Volgograd.

This, in itself, is rare. No large-scale protest has been seen in the country since the winter of 2011-2012 when thousands of people took to the streets after Vladimir Putin had been elected for a third term.

Perhaps with the memory of those protests in mind, and despite the fact that the drivers have caused widespread disruption on the roads, the tightly-controlled Russian state media has largely avoided discussing the truckers' concerns on television.

That could also be because much of the drivers' anger is directed at a man who is close to the president.

Igor Rotenberg, the son of Vladimir Putin's judo partner Arkady, part-owns the company which is collecting the transportation tax.

The perception among lorry drivers, Alexander Lushavin said, is that the new fee will help make one of Russia's richest men richer while "ordinary people get poorer and poorer and poorer."

"They don't have this money,” he said. "[This new charge] will destroy all small and medium businesses because these exorbitant fees mean the drivers won't make a profit. They won't be able to feed themselves or their families."

Russia's transport minister has suggested that cargo companies participate in selecting road projects the money raised by the tax would go into and that the projects be listed on the collection company's website.

"The only thing we won't have to pay for next is air"

Anna Petrova, who also works in the truck drivers' coordination centre, said the levy would have consequences which reach far beyond the drivers' own pockets. The cost of transporting goods, she said, has already gone up by 1.5 times and the new tax could mean more costs would be passed on to consumers.

"This affects everything," she said.

"It's more expensive to buy a house now because we move a lot of building materials. It's the same for food – the cost of food will go up. Soon the only thing we won't have to pay for is air."

Vladimir Putin is, according to his spokesperson, aware of the protests. The authorities have announced that the fine for trucks not equipped with a meter will be lowered.

As yet, President Putin has stayed largely immune from any mass criticism caused by Russia's economic downturn which has seen food prices rise and the ruble lose half its value against the dollar. As president, he remains genuinely popular and enjoys consistent levels of support, frequently higher than 80%, according to the Levada Center, a Russian polling organization.

His popularity stems, in part, from his strong-man image and a reputation among many Russians for picking the country up off its knees after the economic chaos of the 1990s and driving up living standards.

Now that promise of prosperity is harder to deliver as the government is struggling to deal with an economic crisis which has been caused by a low oil price and western sanctions imposed after Russia annexed Crimea. It is having to make budget cuts which have included unpopular steps such as freezing pension contributions.

Against that backdrop, the authorities' conciliatory gestures towards the drivers come as no surprise. If they mishandle the protests, they could gain more traction.

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