Dagestani Truck Drivers Put up Surprisingly Strong Fight for Their Rights

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 16 Issue: 23

On November 29, truck drivers across Russia continued gathering forces for a large protest in Moscow, while the authorities put various obstacles in their way (Ekho Moskvy, November 29). The previous day, November 28, the road police in Kalmykia stopped Dagestani truck drivers who were headed to Moscow to participate in the national protest, set for November 30, when truckers plan to halt traffic in the Russian capital. The national truckers’ action was launched on November 15, in response to the announcement that day of a new taxation system called Platon, designed to track and tax Russian truck drivers. An estimated 200 trucks from Dagestan headed toward Moscow, and more are planning to join (Kavkazsky Uzel, November 28).

Some of the protesters managed to get through the police roadblocks and continue to head toward Moscow. Still other Dagestani truck drivers are already in Moscow to make scheduled deliveries of goods. In addition, Dagestani truck drivers and the republic’s branch of the Communist Party plan to stage a protest in Makhachkala on December 5 demanding that the government abolish the Platon system (Chernovik, November 28).

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has declared support for the truck drivers’ protests, calling on all affected drivers to go to Moscow to defend their rights and reminding his audience that he warned about the corruption behind the Platon system before it came into force in November. Navalny has promised to set up mobile groups to provide free legal advice to the truck drivers if they end up clashing with police (Navalny.com, November 27).

The Russian authorities initiated talks with the protesters and have reportedly started to split them, allegedly bribing protest leaders with offers of government posts. The authorities are trying to keep the protesters out of Moscow, since regional protests are not considered to be of vital importance (Tvrain.ru, November 27). Russian Transportation Minister Maksim Sokolov traveled to St. Petersburg in an effort to dissuade the protesters, but instead of meeting with their representatives, met with pro-government businesses instead. The meeting was then broadcast on Russian state TV in an attempt to show that the problem had been resolved. Meanwhile, protest leaders say that Sokolov does not even have the power to make decisions about the new taxation system, because it was imposed by people much higher up in the Russian state hierarchy—President Vladimir Putin and his close associates (Tvrain.ru, November 28). A State Duma deputy, Yevgeny Fyodorov, even accused the protesting truck drivers of connections with dark foreign forces who want to overthrow the Russian government (YouTube, November 20). The accusations of treason against the truck drivers, however, were ineffective, since they were so ludicrous even by contemporary Russian standards.

The Platon system does not simply introduce a tax on the use of federal highways in Russia, which many people would probably accept. The new taxation system does not function properly, is reportedly quite expensive and practically privatized: indeed, Igor Rotenberg, the son of Arkady Rotenberg, is said to be one of the primary beneficiaries of the revenues collected through the Platon system. The billionaire Rotenberg brothers, Arkady and Boris, are close friends of Vladimir Putin. The Rotenbergs did not invest in the system, but instead received a credit of about $500 million from a government bank to devise the new system of taxation of truck drivers. The private beneficiaries of the Platon system are expected to receive $150 million in revenues per year (Meduza.io, November 24).

Dagestani truck drivers, known for their presence throughout southern Russia and beyond, are a substantial social force. As a result of their strike, a large shipment of agricultural goods was reportedly on the verge of spoiling on the border with Azerbaijan (Novoe Delo, November 27). Even though the demands of the Dagestani truck drivers are purely economic, their significance goes far beyond that. On November 25, the Dagestani authorities held hasty talks with the leaders of the republic’s protesting truck drivers and quickly announced that the problem had been solved and the protesters had dropped their demands and plans to go to Moscow. However, the only concession that the government made was to lower the fines for the drivers who avoid using the new taxation system, which did not convince a majority of the protesters (Onkavkaz.com, November 27). The chairman of the so-called Independent Union of Businessmen and Drivers of Dagestan, Isalmagomed Nabiev, stated that he supported the new tax (Kavkazskaya Politika, November 17). However, many truck drivers in the republic doubt that Nabiev represents anybody but himself and do not take him seriously.

Dagestan has a high rate of unemployment, and truck driving is a profession of vital importance that people are prepared to fight for. According to the drivers, the new taxation system will practically destroy many livelihoods, and they are prepared to defend what they see as their rights at any cost (November 24). The demands of the Dagestani truck drivers quickly turned against the Russian government, including the “sacred cow” of modern Russian politics—Vladimir Putin himself. One Dagestani protester equated Putin to Tsar Nicholas II, and warned that the Russian president could repeat the last Russian tsar’s fate (YouTube, November 23).

Although the protest mostly is about economic rights, Dagestanis, for the first time in many years, now regard Moscow as an obstacle to their well-being. If Moscow uses brute force to disperse the Dagestani protesters, it may antagonize many Dagestanis who tie the republic to the Russian market and Russia, thereby increasing separatist sentiment in the republic.