MOSCOW -- Despondent middle-aged men blowing whistles made for an unusual scene in downtown Moscow on August 9 as hundreds of taxi drivers gathered to protest a new law they say could destroy their livelihood.
The law, which comes into effect on September 1, requires all taxicabs to be licensed, painted a single color, and be equipped with a taximeter, an orange light on the roof, and special lights on the sides.
The authorities call the law an effort to finally regulate Russia's famously chaotic taxi industry and phase out private cabs, known as "bombily," which are ubiquitous in Russian cities. But taxi drivers say the law is badly thought-out, prohibitively expensive for taxi drivers to obey, and effectively criminalizes many professional cabbies.
Standing in front of Moscow's Heroes of the Revolution monument, cab driver Oleg Amosov, dressed in a shiny silver suit and pointy shoes, told protesters why the new law effectively meant he will not be able to provide for his wife and three children.
"Nowadays, drivers are protected from nothing. Nowadays, they are protected from no one," Amosov said. "Now this new law will drive them into a bunch of administrative hurdles that in principal are impossible to carry out. My car is registered to my wife. So do I not have the right to work in a taxi? I'm sorry but everyone understands this is nonsense."
Moscow taxi drivers demonstrate on August 9 against the law regulating their business.
Amosov and other cabbies say the law should have required the cabbies themselves to get licensed rather than their cars. They also say equipping and painting their cars will cost them 50,000 rubles ($1,700) each, effectively pricing them out of the market. Painting their cars yellow, they add, will decrease the resale value of their vehicles.
"We want licensing not to be issued to cars, as the mechanism is laid out in the law," Aleksandr Makarov, chairman of the cab driver's union, told RFE/RL. "We want them issued to the person."
Small groups of riot police were stationed at the rally as approximately 200 cabbies whistled and brandished signs with slogans like "Taxiing is the work that feeds me and my family." A police van fitted with three surveillance cameras monitored the protest throughout.
There were also protests in other Russian cities, including Ivanovo in central Russia and Ulyanovsk on the Volga River.
Critics of the law say it gives too much power to regional authorities. Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Center notes that regional governments will decide things like what single color taxis will be painted and also how licenses will be issued and at what cost.
Meanwhile, the daily "Kommersant" reported that some puzzled regional governors have been asking the Transport Ministry how to proceed with licensing. Observers note that these questions remain unanswered months after the bill was passed in April and are unlikely to be resolved before September, creating additional confusion.
Moscow taxi drivers demonstrate against the law regulating their business on August 9.
There are signs the protests, despite their modest size, have unnerved the authorities. On August 4, the All-Russia Popular Front convened a meeting with taxi labor unions to clear the air and forestall protests before the law comes into force.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin delivered a prerecorded video address, and his speech was followed by others from Transport Ministry officials. However, various Russian media reported that the officials had their remarks cut short by questions posed from the floor by disgruntled taxi drivers, many of whom had come to the capital from the regions.
'How Will We Feed Our Children?'
Amosov said the meeting with the Popular Front was unsatisfactory, and that promises of future amendments to improve the law were vague.
"The following kind of things were said: 'Yes, in half a year we will try and make some amendments, maybe we will succeed in making amendments so that in some way the legislation is better. Perhaps, in a year's time, these amendments will be passed,'" Amosov said. "What are we supposed to do for this year in the meantime? I have three children. What are we going to do?"
The law is particularly worrying for cabbies not affiliated with large taxi companies, about 80 percent of the market in Moscow according to participants in the August 9 protest. These drivers fear they will be driven out of the market by high costs and insurmountable bureaucratic hurdles.
Moreover, taxi drivers say the law could drive up the cost of a taxi ride in Moscow by as much as 35 percent, and by as much as 80 percent in the regions.
The Russian taxi industry has long been unregulated despite various attempts over the years to change this. Russians are accustomed to hailing any vehicle -- be it a private car, ambulance, or milk truck -- and negotiating a fare.
Aleksei Mukhin of the Center for Political Information says the legislation appears to be connected in part to the government's drive to control unchecked migration since many unlicensed taxi drivers are from the North Caucasus or Central Asia.
Makarov was skeptical that the authorities will make any concessions, despite the protests and mounting discontent over the law. "It's tilting at windmills," he said. "The authorities don't listen to their people."