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Disgruntled Truckers Bring Moscow Ring Road To A Standstill

Truckers across Russia have been holding slow-moving protests against a road-use fee, which they say will drive them out of business.
Truckers across Russia have been holding slow-moving protests against a road-use fee, which they say will drive them out of business.

MOSCOW -- Police in the Russian capital have blocked a column of long-haul truckers who were attempting to drive their rigs along Moscow's ring road at low speed to protest a new road-use fee they say threatens their livelihood.

After police blocked the column, it brought traffic on the clogged six-lane road to a standstill and a traffic jam of some 10 kilometers quickly formed.

Activists accused the police of creating the critical situation by forcing the column to stop, calling it a "provocation."

For nearly a month, truckers across the country have been holding slow-moving protests against the road-use fee that they say will drive them out of business. Russia's economic troubles mean many are already struggling to make ends meet.

The truckers' actions are one of the biggest signs of public discontent in Russia since a wave of protests over a 2011 parliamentary election marred by evidence of widespread fraud and Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency in 2012 after a stint as prime minister.

The road-use fee is currently set at 1.5 rubles ($0.02) per kilometer, and the government says it is necessary to pay for road repairs and maintenance. In addition to the fee, truckers will be required to register and file their itineraries in advance or to pay to equip their trucks with a tracking system.

Adding to the truckers' discontent is the fact that the fee, enforced by a computerized system called Platon in Russian, is operated by a company controlled by Igor Rotenberg -- a son of billionaire oligarch Arkady Rotenberg, a former judo sparring partner of Putin who has been given billions of dollars in state construction contracts.

The government agreed late last month to waive some fines and to postpone the implementation of the fee for three months, but protesters said these concessions were not enough.

"We have one demand," trucker Sergei Gulyayev told RFE/RL, "the complete cancelation of Platon. ...We don't need a delayed death sentence."

Gulyayev said the protesters were motivated by "purely economic demands."

The December 4 protest came a day after Putin, in his annual state of the nation address, said the economic situation was "difficult, but not critical" and acknowledged that many Russians are wondering when it will improve.

Russia has been hit by low global prices for oil, its key export, and by sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union over its interference in Ukraine.

The truckers attempted to hold the Moscow protest on November 30, but traffic police across the country blocked highways and turned back truckers, forcing them to postpone the action.

"Our hope is that people will start to think," a 25-year-old trucker who identified himself only as Roman, from the Vologda Oblast north of Moscow, told RFE/RL.

The truckers hope that "we'll be able to stand in one collective, with one demand, and will be able to demand cancellation [of the road fee]," Roman said. "But we can't give up. There is no way back for us. We all have debts and families, children. There is no turning back now. We have to go to the end."

Another trucker, 42-year-old Mikhail from the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod, said the protesters hope that average Russians will support them, saying that if the road fee is enforced, average consumers will be the ones to pay.

"We aren't fighting for ourselves, because we are just the middlemen," said Mikhail, who gave only his first name. "People in stores pay higher prices and the money comes to us and we give it to Platon. We are the middlemen. Actually, we are being turned into tax collectors."

Economist Yevgeny Gontmakher told RFE/RL on December 3 that he believes the government will ultimately make "serious concessions" to prevent the trucker protest from becoming a political movement.

"We won't see any sort of structure formed that will really defend people's rights or become a genuine opposition," Gontmakher said.

With reporting by Tom Balmforth in Moscow, Robert Coalson, and RFE/RL's Russian Service
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