KHIMKI, RUSSIA — For days, police and dozens of truckers planning to paralyze Moscow in a vehicular act of protest have played a game of hide-and-seek, as the drivers prepare to ride on the capital in force.
At 12 a.m. Friday, nearly half of the fledgling revolutionaries were trapped in an Ikea parking lot on the outskirts of Moscow, blocked by police.
The demonstration of about 100 trucks near Moscow is the first of its kind in years.
“If as many as we expected had come, we could have made demands of the government,” said Sergey Vladimirov, one of the protest coordinators, as his allies stamped their feet to stave off fatigue and the frost. The air smelled of fumes. Vladimirov looked as if he might collapse. “Now all we can do is make them hear us.”
Their anger stems from a new toll system called Platon (derived from the Russian “Pay-per-ton”), which will levy charges on trucks weighing more than 12 tons and is projected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars each year. The truckers say the tolls will bankrupt them. And they are angry that the company managing the system is owned by the son of one of President Vladimir Putin’s oldest friends. The Kremlin denies that nepotism played a role in the toll decision.
Economic discontent among average Russians is of deep concern to the Kremlin, which counts blue-collar workers as part of its political base. Putin devoted considerable time in a nationally televised address Thursday to highlight the bright spots in Russia’s battered economy, and he encouraged officials to “treat civil society and business as equal partners.”
“These are the beginnings of the political consequences of the economic crisis, and that is going to be the topic of 2016,” said Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist and a senior lecturer at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. “The truckers are something like the foam on the waves signifying the coming storm.”
Moscow’s massive anti-Putin protests sparked by rigged elections four years ago were overtly political. The truckers at the Ikea on Friday said their demonstration was “economic in nature” and not directed against Putin.
But the source of anger is similar, Schulmann said.
“In fact, these protests are driven by the same thing: the discrepancy between society’s expectations and the decisions made by the government,” she said. “There is no channel for feedback.”
The trucks were gathered in groups of 15 or 20 at several staging points around the city, some driving south from St. Petersburg, others driving north from as far away as Dagestan. The drivers were mostly independent businessmen with their own trucks, ranging from tractor-trailers to delivery vans. News of the demonstration traveled via social networks and word of mouth. Smaller demonstrations have been held as far east as Siberia.
The truckers planned a mass rally in Moscow this past Monday, but they postponed it when few trucks arrived because of poor coordination and police harassment en route.
On Friday morning, the truckers disputed whether the plan was to stop traffic entirely on Moscow’s MKAD ring road, drive at the minimum speed limit or perform another act of civil disobedience. Police themselves had snarled traffic by setting up temporary roadblocks to interrogate truckers they suspected of seeking to join the protest.
Aleksey Rozhkov, 48, said he left the city of Kostroma on Nov. 29 and had spent days being kicked out of rest stops by police hassling truck drivers.
Like others at the protest, he had listened to Putin’s speech at a roadside cafe, hoping he would address the Platon toll system.
“Of course, he didn’t notice us,” he said. “I stay far away from politics. This is an economic protest. I couldn’t care less who is in charge there.”
Viktor Veselov, 52, wore his dark brown hair in a bun underneath a felt Austrian cap. He also goes by the name Gagarin, a reference to the Soviet astronaut who was the first man in space, and Rubber Duck, a reference to the hero of the 1978 American trucker film “Convoy.” His tractor-trailer bore a flag with the emblem of St. Petersburg, his home town.
“Ah, the imperialists have arrived,” he said with a smile when an American reporter approached him.
Veselov said he had five trucks in the protest. Each could bring in 70,000 rubles, or a little over $1,000, each month. But with the Platon tolls and other taxes, he said, he would pay up to 40,000 rubles in taxes monthly.
“It is impossible to get anyone to meet with you officially,” he said. “So the idea was to paralyze traffic for seven hours, five hours, three hours. Anything so that they would have to listen.”
As Veselov spoke, dozens of truckers, potential protesters, drove past. Why didn’t they join?
“They’ll lose their jobs,” he said. “Everyone out there supports us. But not everyone has the money for fuel or his own truck. They work for someone else.”
Russian lawmakers attempted Friday to placate the truckers, lowering the fine for failure to pay the new toll from about $6,670 to below $150 and indicating they might be ready to make further concessions.
Like the residents of most world capitals, Moscow’s motorists believe their traffic jams are the worst. Any of Moscow’s concentric ring roads can “close” if traffic backs up all the way around the circle to the source of the jam.
In one famous case, drivers on the MKAD attempted to persuade one another to reverse back down the highway to escape bumper-to-bumper traffic. In 2013, heavy snows on the highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg created a 125-mile backup that lasted for days.
Irina Savelevskaya, a public relations manager smoking outside an upscale grocery store in downtown Moscow on Friday, said of the protesting truckers, “If they close the MKAD, I will kill them.”