MOSCOW -- Andrei Bazhutin, the head of Russia's nationwide truckers protest who hoped to make a run for the presidency, says he crashed out of the race because he ran out of time to register. But he points to a coordinated campaign to keep him off the ballot as the reason he didn't make it.
Instead of gathering signatures to get his name on the ballot he has either been in jail or hiding after being hit with what he calls "fabricated" charges.
"I have no doubt this was done just so that I could not take part in the registration of candidates for the presidential elections," he told RFE/RL's Russian Service in an interview on January 14, a few days after returning home to his family for the first time in over a month.
Bazhutin heads a union called the United Truckers of Russia that was formed to protest against the controversial Platon road-tax system introduced in 2015. The group boasts 10,000 members who say the toll on heavy-duty vehicles, which is meant to generate cash for the upkeep of roads, will bankrupt self-employed truckers who do not work for major carrier companies. They also bristle that the tax is collected by a company owned by a son of Arkady Rotenberg, a tycoon who is close to President Vladimir Putin.
Little Media Coverage
Their protest activity, which has flared up intermittently since 2015, has garnered scant state media attention, but they had hoped that Bazhutin's presidential bid might bring their cause into the spotlight.
Putin's re-election in March is widely seen as a foregone conclusion. But the airtime that a campaign might have offered Bazhutin could have raised inconvenient issues for the Kremlin, which casts itself as a protector of blue collar workers.
The alleged campaign against Bazhutin's presidential bid began in December, when his union of protesting truckers was labeled a "foreign agent" by the Justice Ministry. The designation carries a stigma, but also restricts the union from backing him at elections.
Bazhutin was then detained on December 11 for what he readily admits was a violation: driving without a license. (He was stripped of his license in March after participating in protest violations in his native St. Petersburg).
The father of five said trying circumstances compelled him to get behind the wheel: the family car used by his wife to take their children to school was breaking down, and he took it to get it fixed. He was stopped and detained immediately, he says.
"The day they arrested me it was absolutely clear they were detaining me for another reason," he adds, claiming he had been visited by bailiffs earlier that morning and that anti-extremism police from the Interior Ministry had also been stationed outside his home. "I think that if I'd been near the car -- in the trunk, under the car, or wherever -- they'd still have found a reason to detain me."
He was jailed for 15 days for the violation -- what he calls an unusually harsh sentence. As soon as he completed that term, he says, he was immediately detained again and told he would be taken to a court hearing the following day, December 27, over an old protest infraction from a demonstration the truckers held in April.
Bazhutin calls the latter charges "fabricated." He says he had indeed been detained during the April demonstration, but was released when no reason was found to hold him. He believes the unearthing of the old incident was intended to keep him behind bars.
When he was escorted to the courtroom by police for his hearing, Bazhutin says, he was left alone and he spontaneously decided to leave the courthouse. He denies that this constituted an "escape," as his disappearance was reported in local media at the time.
"I had my passport in hand. And I thought: Why should I take part in this crooked justice?" he said. "I was 100 percent sure they would convict me and I'd get the minimum 10 days in jail, so I calmly gathered myself and left the court building, walking past the bailiffs. You can't call this escape."
He then went into hiding, planning to attend a trucker gathering to nominate him, a first step in getting registered for the March presidential elections. The truckers had earlier agreed to hold the meeting in southern Daghestan -- a regional transport hub with a particularly large number of disgruntled truckers -- reasoning that it would be easier to hold the meeting there than in Moscow or St. Petersburg.
'People Were Scared'
Bazhutin said it proved impossible to go, however, and even more so because of an alleged crackdown on truckers in Daghestan.
"After I left the court building they were searching for me, I know this for sure. And I couldn't travel to Daghestan. There was also a meltdown over there because the security services were carrying out serious work. People were scared, and only 50 people came to the meeting. Many people couldn't be reached by phone, their phones were turned off. Now I can't run for the presidency. I don't have enough time left and I no longer pose a threat to the authorities."
The court hearing he skipped was finally held on January 12 and it gave him the minimum fine -- 20,000 rubles ($355). After over a month away, he finally returned home and told RFE/RL he was unaware of any other cases against him.
Bazhutin said the truckers will soon hold a union congress to decide how to proceed with their protest campaign. "What I can tell you is that we are definitely not going to sit quietly and silently and wait for something to happen," he said.
"We are going to resist and conduct protests, but we have to think carefully about how to protect ourselves so as not to lose people or leave them exposed, and to ensure that it is effective."
Written by RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Tom Balmforth based on an interview by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Yelizaveta Mayetnaya.