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Russian Lawmakers Tentatively Back Legislation Aimed At Trucker Protests

Truckers have been angry about the increased costs for using the national road-toll system. (file photo)
Truckers have been angry about the increased costs for using the national road-toll system. (file photo)

Russian lawmakers have tentatively backed new legislation aimed at thwarting protests by long-haul truckers, whose highly public demonstrations last year tied up Moscow's already notorious traffic.

The protests in December, targeting a new national highway toll system, worried the Kremlin, fearing the country's ongoing economic woes would result in an uptick in antigovernment sentiments among working-class voters.

The lower house of parliament -- the State Duma -- passed the amendments in the first of three readings on February 16, but only narrowly and after what Russian media said was a lively debate.

Hundreds of long-haul truck drivers converged on the Russian capital in early December, snarling a key highway and prompting a showdown with police who tried to limit its impact on city traffic.

The truckers were angry about the increased costs for using the national toll system, called Platon, and about the fact that a close friend of Putin's controls the toll's payment system.

Transport Minister Maksim Sokolov and other government officials said the new tolls would help pay for the country's decrepit road infrastructure.

But truck protesters charged that the revenues from the system, predicted at $700 million annually, would merely line the pockets of Kremlin insiders.

Many also voiced concern about rising inflation and the plummeting ruble, trends fueled by the drop in global oil prices and sanctions imposed on Russia by Western nations in response to Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.

Those economic problems are expected to continue through this year, potentially undermining Putin's still-strong support among Russians.

The bill must go through two more readings before heading to the upper chamber and then to President Vladimir Putin for his signature. The Duma is widely seen as a compliant legislature, nearly always rubber-stamping Kremlin-backed initiatives.

The amendments would essentially group "road rallies" in the same legal category as political demonstrations.

Dmitry Gudkov, one of the only opposition lawmakers in the Duma, suggested the amendments were aimed at preventing a scenario similar to what happened in Ukraine, when months of government protests culminated in violent clashes and the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.

In a posting on Facebook, Gudkov also criticized the amendments as poorly worded, saying that classifying "road rallies" as political protests could also then apply to wedding convoys -- when newlyweds and their wedding parties drive around in celebration -- or even funeral processions.

The measure was the latest in a series pushed by the Kremlin to restrict public displays of antigovernment sentiment.

In 2014, Putin signed into law new measures that effectively criminalize street protests that don't have official authorization. Lawmakers also passed laws that steeply raise fines for participating in unauthorized demonstrations.

Meanwhile, Russia and Ukraine escalated a growing trucker-trade war on February 16, as Moscow blocked entry for all Ukraine-registered trucks.

The decision was made in retaliation for Ukraine blocking Russian trucks, a move which cut a major access route for Russian trucks to Europe.

Poland has also moved to restrict access to its roads by Russian truckers.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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