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In A Rare Protest, Russian Truckers Rally Against Putin's Highway Tax

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During a Dec. 5 protest against new highway fees in Moscow, a Russian Communist Party supporter stood in front of a banner with portraits of wealthy businessmen including billionaire Arkady Rotenberg, far left. Rotenberg's son, Igor Rotenberg, controls the business operating the new road fee system.

Protests are rare in today's Russia, but there's one expression of discontent that's not going away.

For weeks now, long-distance truck drivers have been protesting against a new system of fees for using the highways. They say the fees will bankrupt them and drive up prices for Russian consumers.

What makes this protest significant is that it's not coming from the Russian middle class or liberal intellectuals. It's coming from people who are part of President Putin's working-class base.

Some of the truckers made a rare appearance in the Russian capital, with a small rally last week outside the presidential administration building in central Moscow.

Under the new system, trucks weighing 12 tons or more are required to have a meter that measures how far they travel, and the government charges them a small fee for every kilometer.

The money is supposed to be used to upgrade Russia's notoriously bad highway system.

But 49-year-old driver Igor Veresov, a beefy man with a weather-beaten face, says the extra charge will eat up most of the small profit he makes on every trip.

"It's very simple, I don't have enough to feed my family," he says. "The system takes away what we bring home."

Veresov is from Veliky Novgorod, a small city on the road between Moscow and St. Petersburg. He owns his own truck and says he hauls for local businesses — mostly consumer goods, such as paint and varnish.

He warns that consumers will be the ones to bear the brunt of higher prices when he'll have to charge more to carry the goods.

In an economy where consumers are already facing inflation of nearly 16 percent, you'd think the drivers' prediction of even higher prices would grab people's attention.

But economist Ekaterina Reshetova says it's not really that big a deal.

"Experts like to give an example," she explains. "If you add this fee to a truckload of milk traveling 100 kilometers, it will only raise the cost of a carton of milk by 1 kopeck."

In other words, most people won't even notice it. A kopeck is a small Russian coin that's currently worth a tiny fraction of a cent.

So the truckers are having trouble getting ordinary citizens to feel their pain. And there's another reason, too: The state-run media, where most Russians get their news, have given the truckers' protests almost no coverage at all.

The truckers have tried to get attention by blocking highways or slowing traffic, but so far, police have headed off most of their actions. Some truckers have set up protest camps in cities just outside of Moscow, where local residents have been supporting them by bringing them food.

But not everyone sees the problem from the drivers' point of view.

Reshetova, a senior researcher on transport policy at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, says Russian officials are catching onto something that policy makers in the West have already figured out: Heavy trucks cause a lot of damage to the roads.

"And the point is this," she says. "The one who destroys the road must pay to restore it. This slogan was advanced in the U.S. and Europe many decades ago. In our country, they are just trying to introduce it."

But the truckers say they don't trust the Russian government to use the money to repair the roads. Some Communist lawmakers in Russia's parliament are backing them.

Speakers at last week's rally in central Moscow used Soviet-era rhetoric, calling on workers to rise up and defend their interests against the capitalists — the so-called "idle" class.

The language may sound old-fashioned, but it has a current bite because the road-fee system, called PLATON, is operated as a private business. It's controlled by a man named Igor Rotenberg, whose father is billionaire Arkady Rotenberg, one of Putin's oldest friends. Arkady Rotenberg and his equally wealthy brother, Boris, are among Russia's most influential businessmen.

The truckers say there's something fishy going on, but federal prosecutors have declined to investigate.

Throughout his years in power, Putin has been able to count on Russia's blue-collar workers to support him, even when the country was going through economic turmoil. Even now, the truckers say their anger isn't directed at Putin, but at powerful oligarchs such as the Rotenbergs and the bureaucrats who allegedly do their bidding.

The truckers are hoping that Putin will hear them and help. So far, though, the government's only concession has been to reduce the fines the drivers will face if they don't pay the road fee.

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