Road Rage Redux

In case you haven’t noticed, Russia’s long-distance truck drivers are angry. And they are, finally, in Moscow. Right now.

It is poetic, I suppose, that today’s long-awaited descent of Russian truckers on Moscow has focused on the city’s ring road: We are going around in circles. Which is to say, we’ve been here before – and we’ll be back here again.

Russia’s rulers have a long-standing habit of pissing people off with the roads. Russia’s roads themselves are usually sufficient to cause rage, but rage in and of itself doesn’t lead to protest. That, instead, requires the addition of insult to injury. That happened when, in May 2005, the government tried to ban right-side-drive cars (of which there were 2 million in the country), bringing drivers out into the streets in a protest strikingly similar to what the truckers are doing today. (More about that similarity later; it is not accidental.) It has happened repeatedly thereafter, either because of punitive taxes on the imports of used cars, or because of the abuse of elite privilege on the roads. You’d think they’d learn.

But, of course, they don’t. This time, the trigger is an automated road tax system for heavyweight trucks called Platon, mandated by law and outsourced to a private company controlled by the Rotenberg family, who, of course, have close ties to President Vladimir Putin. The truckers don’t want to pay it. The government has backed down a bit, but not enough. And so we go around the ring road.

That, however, is very far from being the full story. Let’s take a closer look.

What is this all about?

On the surface, this protest is about who will pay for the cost of maintaining Russia’s roads. The Russian federal government is responsible for maintaining most of the major highways that connect Russia’s cities, which, in turn, are the major conduit for most of the country’s non-resource freight shipments; trucks carried 5.4 billion tons of goods in 2014, compared to only 1.2 billion tons on the rails (excluding hydrocarbons and other resource commodities). To pay for all of this, the government decided to implement an additional road tax, to be paid by the owners of all trucks in excess of 12 tons, levied at 3.73 rubles per kilometer hauled. When the first grumblings of protest emerged, the government reduced the rate to 1.53 rubles through January 2016.

Despite that early concession, however, the grumbling grew to a growl – and eventually a road – less because of how much was to be paid (though this certainly mattered), than because of who was to receive the payment. The contractor responsible for collecting the money is a company called RTITS, which is majority owned by Igor Rotenberg, the son of Arkady Rotenberg, a close friend and associate of Putin. One of the most popular protest banners quickly became “The Rotenbergs are worse than ISIS“.

What this is not about, however, is a generalized challenge to Putin. At least not yet. Way back on 26 November, copies of a list of demands from the truckers began circulating online, demanding that the Platon system be dismantled, the Rotenbergs jailed and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev dismissed (just, you know, because), along with a whole host of other demands (freezing the cost of diesel fuel and spare parts, for example); it seems likely, however, that this was a hoax, designed to make the protesters look ridiculous. All they really want is to get rid of the tax, and the Platon receivers newly affixed to their dashboards. But they’re willing to go to great lengths to get what they want – and they have the means to get there.

Who is protesting?

This is one of those rare situations when we know, more or less, who the protesters are (although there is still a great deal we don’t know about them). There are somewhere in the range of 8 million trucks on Russia’s roads, many of which are owned by large corporations; these are not the people protesting. Rather, the protest is being led by chastniki, private individuals who own their own truck and haul freight on a freelance basis. It’s difficult to come by hard numbers, but there are, at the very least, several million of these people in Russia, distributed across every region of the country.

We also know that they are relatively well organized, for at least two reasons. For one, the Inter-regional Union of Professional Drivers has represented many of the chastniki for more than a decade and a half; an independent union (despite the fact that most of its members don’t work for corporate employers), it was active in supporting the 2005 automotive movement and has steadfastly remained outside the state-controlled labor consortia. (For more on that history, see Chapter 7 of Moscow in Movement. Please.) There are other similar unions serving the sector, too.

The second reason is more important: Russia’s truckers are a community. They refer to one another as bratishka – ‘little brother’ – and have a strong social bond of trust and mutual assistance. They rely on one another for safety when sleeping in way-stations, for help when broken down in the middle of nowhere, for advice on how to avoid corrupt traffic police and unreliable mechanics; I could continue. It’s a lonely life, but it comes with a sense of identity and, with that, solidarity. And online communities, too.

That said, this is not a structurally consolidated protest movement, at least not so far as we can tell. Using online social media as a proxy – and it should be a reliable proxy, given that most truckers are actually very well wired – we see a rather chaotic space, with no real center of gravity. The picture below represents Twitter activity today (4 December 2015) using the three largest protest-related hashtags (#ДеньУлитки, #Дальнобойщики and #Платон). The result is about 1,800 tweets, involving about 700 users, and looks like this:


Again, it’s structurally chaotic and diverse: there are 127 clusters within the network, and very few people with any real amount of centrality. But it is discursively coherent: regardless of where they are in the network, people are talking about the same thing (the truckers blocking highways around Moscow) with the same words.

How about the rest of the opposition?

The links between the truckers and the opposition are tenuous, both ideologically and structurally.

“We are not a fifth column,” one protest leader told the newspaper РБК. “I love my country and I hate America. Many of us took part in the Anti-Maidan, but now we are fighting for our rights and the rights of all Russians.”

None of the people clearly visible in the trucker protest have been seen much around opposition political circles before, and opposition leaders have not been able to get much traction with the truckers directly (though not for lack of trying). To get a quick idea of how the trucker protest community (again, at least in its online reflection) fits in, I looked up the follow/follower networks for the nine most prolific accounts in the graph above. (These were: @gulyaev_s, @raznesi_info, @deputatmorozov, @pani_walewska, @elena_baturyna (no, not that Baturyna), @medved_BFM, @_RomanL_, @Ana_stasia_J903 and @Alexxalex3.) The result confirms, at first glance, the earlier finding that there are a lot of not very well connected communities: i.e., most of the core activists’ followers don’t follow each other. People like Alexei Navalny, independent media like Dozhd and others oppositional groups do show up in the network, but not in central positions that would bridge one group to another. The most powerful bridge, it turns out, is @InfoResist (highlighted in red in the graph below), a Russian-language news service based in Ukraine. (I’m almost reluctant to report that, lest the Kremlin propagandists get wind of it. On the other hand, if I can figure this out, I imagine the FSB can, too.)


But successful protest movements are often more about the coming together of frames – shared sets of understandings and ideas about injustice, anger, blame and strategy – than about the coming together of people and organizations. And this is where the government has made life easier, both for the truckers and the opposition more broadly. Russia’s increasingly dichotomous politics – in which there are only really two categories, ‘us’ and ‘them’ – means both that any and all challengers are lumped together. And since the government and its PR hacks talk to challengers with one voice, the challengers themselves end up responding with something that sounds very much like one voice.

Thus, while Putin delivered his state of the nation address yesterday, the truckers were, um, amused. And moved – to descend, after weeks of warning, on Moscow.

And so we arrive at Putin’s real dilemma. He will, I have little doubt, find a way to solve the trucker crisis; there are, after all, plenty of other ways to enrich his cronies. But he cannot overcome the overwhelming centripetal force that has come to dominate Russian politics, drawing every grievance into a single orbit around the Kremlin, much like the trucks circling the ring road – slowly – today.


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