The Russian government has walked back a controversial new levy on long-haul trucks after protests by their drivers in and around dozens of cities, the latest example of the grassroots political sway wielded by the country's motorists.
The Transport Ministry said in a November 20 statement that it has drafted legislation that would cancel fines for drivers of 12-ton trucks who fail to pay the federal road tax and lower fines for truck owners, though the tax itself appears set to remain in place.
The concession followed a nationwide wave of protests by truck drivers against the levy, which took effect on November 15 and charges 1.5 rubles ($0.02) for each kilometer that large trucks traverse on Russia's roads.
Officials say the initiative is necessary to collect funds to repair damage to roads inflicted by trucks transporting heavy loads, while opponents of the new tax say it threatens to bankrupt small- and mid-sized companies and drive up inflation.
Some truckers and their supporters have also voiced outrage that the levy's electronic collection system -- called Platon -- is operated by a company controlled by the son of construction magnate Arkady Rotenberg, a former judo sparring partner of Russian President Vladimir Putin who has landed billions of dollars in state contracts.
Truckers have flashed placards denouncing what they call the "Rotenberg Levy."
Over the past 10 days, truck drivers have staged protests in more than 70 Russian cities, from the country's western borders to Vladivostok in the Far East, snarling traffic in places by driving their trucks at slow speeds on major thoroughfares.
"We pay taxes! Why are they introducing this?" one truck driver protesting on the side of a freeway in the Sverdlovsk region in the Ural Mountains told RFE/RL's Current Time TV. "This money didn't go to fixing roads, and it won't, because it's going into pockets filled with holes."
The protests have rattled officials in Moscow.
The Federal Roads Agency has asked the Interior Ministry to investigate protest organizers, citing a November 19 incident near the western city of Tver in which a truck veered off the side of the road and struck a group of demonstrating truck drivers, killing one and injuring three.
Meanwhile, State Duma Deputy Yevgeny Fyodorov, a member of Putin's ruling United Russia party, released a November 20 video in which he accused the protesting truck drivers of being manipulated by "national traitors" and a "fifth column" working for the United States.
The Kremlin and state-controlled media under Putin have consistently portrayed the marginalized liberal opposition as nefarious instruments of Western governments seeking to undermine Russia's stability and autonomy.
Attempts to paint Russia's drivers in similarly traitorous tones have proven trickier for officials.
Over the past decade, motorists in Russia -- who number tens of millions across virtually all social strata -- have repeatedly forced the hand of a government that has tightened the screws on political opponents and is notoriously reluctant to bend to public pressure.
In 2006, car owners nationwide protested after Siberian railway worker Oleg Shcherbinsky was sentenced to four years in prison for failing to avoid the speeding car of Altai Governor Mikhail Yevdokimov, who was killed in the ensuing crash. Shcherbinsky's conviction was ultimately overturned.
Tariffs on imported cars also sparked widespread protests by motorists in 2008-09, most notably in Vladivostok, where Japanese imports are popular. Riot police dispatched all the way from Moscow violently dispersed protesters in the Far Eastern city, while Putin continued to stand behind the tariffs.
Motorists have also spearheaded protests against the impunity with which officials, the wealthy, and the well-connected in Russia violate the rules of the road, often with the help of flashing blue sirens called "migalki" atop their vehicles.
Aleksandr Kotov, a leader of this month's protests by truck drivers, said the demonstrations will continue until the Platon payment system is scrapped but that they will be moved farther away from the road to avoid incidents like the deadly accident near Tver, Russia's Kommersant newspaper reported on November 20.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted by the Russian news agency RBC as saying on November 19 that that the Kremlin is aware of protests over the new levy on 12-ton trucks, but that all questions about the initiative "are an issue for the government," not the president.
He added that "minor hiccups" in the system would be fixed, RBC reported.