MANAS, Russia — It stretched from horizon to horizon, like some giant, many-colored, mechanical caterpillar, and it was angry, very angry. It was a long line of truck cabs, air horns booming, mighty engines revving, clogging the narrow highway that skirts the Caspian Sea coastline of the restive southern Russian province of Dagestan.
Their drivers, hundreds of them, were trying to send a message to a federal government that seems to tune out quieter civic protests, except to send police and national guardsmen in riot gear: Just you try to tune this out.
The truckers in this recent rally in Dagestan were part of a nationwide strike by thousands of drivers who say that a road tax, which the Russian government just increased, is making it impossible for them to earn a living. The drivers, who stopped working March 27, complain that the tax is ineffective at best and suspicious, given that it’s collected by a private company with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Like many of the protesters in the nationwide rallies against corruption that brought out tens of thousands on March 26, the truckers say their demands are economic, not political. And although the anti-corruption protest was a one-day event, the truckers are still out there.
Russian authorities are treating this as a political challenge. Putin is expected to run for president in 2018, and by all accounts, the Kremlin is looking to demonstrate the solidity of his approval ratings, which haven’t dipped below 80 percent in three years.
As they did with the anti-corruption rallies, authorities have responded to the truckers with intimidation tactics and media blackouts. Organizers of the strike have been arrested on what they say are trumped-up charges, or for no reason other than for authorities to show what they can do.
That happened this month in Moscow to Rustam Mallamagomedov, a representative of the Dagestan truckers, who had just finished a news conference when four plainclothes officers took him to a local station, held him for a bit and then let him go.
“They were just trying to frighten him. It’s a common practice,” said Nadezhda Prusenkova of Novaya Gazeta, an independent Moscow newspaper that organized the news conference, and one of the few media outlets in the Russian capital covering the strike. State-run television, where most Russians get their news, has ignored the truckers’ protests.
In Dagestan, the lack of coverage is cause for distress. The drivers union leaders say more than 30,000 truckers have stopped work; 4,000 trucks are parked in and around this roadside town of Manas, the focal point of the protests. Magomed Ibragimov, who, like many of the protesters in Dagestan, owns his truck and operates as an independent contractor, spelled out the problem.
“We pay and pay and pay everywhere, and that’s it,” he said, tugging on a hand-rolled cigarette. “I no longer see the point of working.”
He stood beside a line of about 300 cabs — mostly Volvos, a few Dutch DAFs, the odd American Freightliner — parked along storefronts and in an adjacent lot on the side of the highway that links Russia and Azerbaijan.
Ibragimov spoke on a recent Friday, when most of the cabs’ owners were still at prayer. Muslim faith is strong in Dagestan, which waited out two civil wars in neighboring Chechnya and has more recently weathered its own slow-burning Islamist insurgency, along with rampant corruption, gang warfare and an authoritarian regional government that has sent officials to talk to the protesters but mainly has told them to keep it down.
The truckers are protesting Platon, a toll-collecting system that charges heavy trucks by the kilometer. It was first rolled out in 2015. Truckers protested at the time, despite the government’s insistence that the toll was necessary to improve roads and that nepotism had nothing to do with the fact that the company that manages the system is run by the son of a wealthy businessman who is Putin’s former judo sparring partner.
The truckers went on strike this time after the Russian government announced it would double the Platon tariff as of April 15. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s government softened that blow in March, temporarily raising the fee by a lesser amount, to about 3.4 cents per kilometer.
That doesn’t seem like much. But Ibragimov says he travels 100,000 kilometers in a year, which would add up to $3,400. His annual income, he said, is $6,500 in the best of times. Given fuel expenses and wear and tear, he is looking at a net loss. He and other truckers have decided it’s better to stay home in protest than work.
“If we don’t get this Platon annulled, I don’t see the point,” Ibragimov said.
Truckers aren’t the only ones affected by the strike in Dagestan. Shamil, a cabbage farmer who asked that his last name not be used for fear of retribution — understandable, given the large presence of police and national guard troops — said he has had trouble getting his goods to market since the strike. Dagestan truckers take perishable fruit and vegetables to the rest of Russia, and it’s easier for Shamil to find buyers when the truckers are working.
But he supports the strike. He sipped his tea at a roadside cafe where the dairy products, processed snacks and soft drinks all come to Dagestan by truck.
“What happens to the truckers affects all of us,” he said.
So say truckers in Vladivostok in the Far East, in St. Petersburg in the north, across Siberia and along the Volga, and on the outskirts of Moscow.
The protest has spread to more than 60 cities, said Ilya Shablinsky, a member of Russia’s Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. He said he had raised the truckers’ grievances with Putin, “but the president gave a fuzzy response.”
Truckers say they understand the need to pay taxes, but they condemn the Platon system as opaque.
“We want to know where the money is going,” said Andrei Bazhutin, chairman of one of Russia’s truckers unions, who has been arrested twice since the protests began. “We don’t need a corrupt system.”
The company that runs Platon directed a request for comment to Rosavtodor, the government agency that oversees Russia’s roadways.
Dmitry Ignatiev, the agency’s spokesman, said the problem is not the Platon system, which he described as typical of tolling systems in Europe. All the money collected goes straight to the road fund, he said, and the government’s payments to the vendor for its services are “totally transparent.”
The Platon system, he said, is opposed by transportation business owners who were avoiding taxes and underpricing their services. Drivers for businesses that operate legally will not be affected by Platon, he said.
Kamal Magomedov, a trucker here, said the last point may be true for large companies. But self-employed truckers and small companies, he said, are unfairly burdened.
“Nothing short of canceling Platon will make us stop the strike,” he said.