APR 18, 2017 @ 05:16 PM
By Paul Roderick Gregory CONTRIBUTOR
Russia’s long-haul truckers began a work stoppage on March 27. Their goal is to force the Russian government to withdraw the road tax (platon in Russian) that they claim threatens their livelihood. The road tax of 1.53 rubles per kilometer (raised to 1.93 rubles on April 15) was levied on long-haul trucks in November of 2015 as a source of new state revenue. In theory, the extra revenue was to be spent on improving federal roads, but the truckers believe it will disappear into Kremlin deep pockets. At the time of its introduction in 2015, convoys of truckers disrupted Russia’s road transport system. They demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Medvedev and protested that the new tax was to be collected (with a 20% commission) by the Putin-associated Rotenberg oligarchs.
The revulsion of long-haul truckers against the platon tax has simmered since police broke up their strike on the outskirts of Moscow. A planned doubling of the platon on April 15 reinvigorated the trucker protest. (Moscow had counted on the projected at 23 billion rubles in new revenues for its strained budget). Medvedev’s move on March 24 to mollify the truckers with a more moderate 25% increase failed to head off the strike. As far as the strikers are concerned the 1.53 rubles tax already reduced their operating margins to zero or to negative territory.
As noted by experienced Kremlin watcher, Paul Goble, the Kremlin has imposed a media blackout on what has become a nationwide work action affecting 80 federal districts. The trucker strike threatens Russia’s wobbly economic recovery and is expected to drive up consumer prices.
As in November of 2015, the Western media has largely ignored the first nationwide industrial action undertaken by a key branch of the Russian economy. The Putin administration is flummoxed. Unlike the one-day nationwide political demonstrations of March 26, the trucker strike (which began one day later) is a slow bleed for the Kremlin, which it cannot staunch. The trucker strike lacks a central organization or a leader who could be arrested (like Aleksei Navalny in the political strike). It is not a political action, and it seems to be supported by sympathetic locals. The strikers are asking embarrassing questions about how the road taxes are being gathered and spent. There are no demonstrations, only truckers in their large cabs, gathering in the streets or in parking lots, well behaved, grilling food and avoiding drunken behavior. The police and OMON riot militia stand by helplessly. There are no leaders to arrest and no disorderly conduct to punish.
The strikers claim they are under no economic pressure to end their strike. With the new April 15 tax rate, they calculate that they will lose money by operating their businesses. In effect, they have nothing to lose by continuing their strike.
Although the mainstream Russian media has largely ignored the platon strike, the few remaining liberal news outlets are carrying detailed accounts of the strike. Novaya Gazeta is currently featuring reports on the strikers from Volgograd, Saratov, St. Petersburg, Murmansk, Kurgan, Ekaterinburg and Moscow.
The platon strikers have one goal – the removal of the tax. They have concluded that simply stopping work is their only recourse. In a normal society, they could form a labor union to represent their interests, but the Putin regime has destroyed society and the usual strictures on social behavior.
The platon strike is a significant battle of wills between the Kremlin and Russia’s working class. The long-haul trucker strike offers a model of how to fight the “monster” of the Putin political system, which teaches ordinary Russians that it is useless to struggle. If the Kremlin backs down and withdraws the tax, the Russian people may see that resistance can work.
Putin has beaten down political resistance through repression, possible murder, disqualification and control of electoral commissions. Putin’s ratings remain high, but the people are increasingly fed up with the corrupt system he has created. The separation by one day of a nationwide political demonstration against corruption and a nationwide strike of long-haul truckers could forebode a fusion of weak liberal forces with strong popular forces that could emerge as a threat to the Putin regime. With his military obligations, Putin has reached into the pockets of ordinary workers and pensioners to pay for his foreign ventures, and the anti-platon movement is a result.