Dagestan is home to some 600 kilometres of highway, the most extensive of Russia’s North Caucasus. And since 27 March, when Russia’s Association of Hauliers started a countrywide non-stop strike against an electronic taxation system, Dagestan’s long-distance truck drivers have parked themselves in protest up and down the republic. They’re protesting against the so-called “Platon” system, which collects an additional tax to compensate for damage done by heavy goods vehicles to Russia’s roads. But the strikers’ demands also include the resignation of the Russian government.
More than 300 trucks are parked at the Manas Circle, 30km south of the republic’s capital Makhachkala. And they’re facing their fair share of challenges. National Guard troops have been deployed to contain the truckers, and a former public official called for them to be “cut up into pieces”, adding further fuel to a heated situation. After videos of the truckers went viral on Dagestan social media, regional authorities have started talking of attempts to “destabilise the situation” in the republic. And the organiser of Dagestan’s Truckers Union was recently arrested in Moscow and then released the same day.
I went to Manas to find out why the drivers are protesting, and what challenges they’re facing from the authorities.
Umar Garisov, 43, has been driving heavy goods vehicles for 23 years. Garisov’s truck is the only source of income for his family two adults and four children). If deliveries go well, Umar can make 60,000-70,000 roubles (£840-£980) a month, about twice the national average. But if they don’t, he makes a loss.
“I don’t drive any more in the winter,” Garisov tells me. “I froze three times, I’ve ruined my health. In the winter I either park the truck or hire someone to drive it for me, who of course I have to pay. This is fine if I have the cash, but if anything happens to the truck on the road then I have unforeseen extra costs. It’s complicated, keeping an truck on the road. You’re forever spending a heap of money on it, and then the state robs you too.”
Protest slogan in the cab of a striking driver. Image courtesy of the author. “Let’s say you get paid 70,000 roubles for the trip. Out of this you have to pour a tonne of diesel in the tank, which comes to at least 32,000-33,000,” says striking trucker Zainalabit Bagavov. “Plus the unexpected costs: a blown tyre or some problem with the engine. Then you have to eat on the road. So how much is left? These days, as long as I get back safe and sound, even with a small loss, I give thanks to Allah. But now we have Rotenberg [Igor Rotenberg, the co-owner of Platon] around our necks as well. Even if you sell the truck, you have to pay the tax. And none of your problems — you’ve gone bust, you’re riding empty — are of any interest to anyone.”
“They want to take the last kopecks we bring for our kids away from us”
When they put forward their demands, the truckers I speak to at Manas don’t just talk about getting rid of Platon. They also have plenty of complaints about other taxes and the behaviour of staff at control points along the motorway.
In particular, the strikers are demanding a reduction in the rate of transport tax in Dagestan to the average for the North Caucasus Federal District. Drivers of vehicles registered in the North Caucasus Federal District pay 15-20 roubles (£0.21-0.28) per horsepower per annum, while those registered in Dagestan pay 50 Roubles (£0.70). They are also requesting that the number of State Transport Inspectorate control points is reduced in Dagestan, that the conditions for receiving permission to transport goods across borders are revised, and that measures are taken to combat variances in readings at different weight control points.
In addition, the truckers are demanding that “the public be told what the money raised in fuel excise duty, transport taxes and Platon was used for in 2016.”
“They want us to believe that Rotenberg will build roads for us,” says one of the protesters. “But the money we used to pay, seven roubles and 50 kopecks per litre of fuel, where did that go? If this was a matter of state funds, that’d be one thing. But now they want to sell us into slavery for the sake of a private businessman who’s close to Putin.”
Other truckers interrupt him: “We’re striking out of desperation. We’re living very close to the edge. We can’t go on doing this work. They want to take the last kopecks we bring for our kids away from us.”
The drivers find it strange that they are the only people to protest — the consequences of these problems affect the whole population.
“We didn’t get together here to wage war. We got together to make our opinions known, our protest, our demands. When the government shuts up like a clam, they just say nothing. ‘There’s no problem.’ But these problems affect everybody, wherever they live — in Dagestan, in Russia — it’s not just truckers that are affected. Our problem is that we’re on the road, and we’re the ones who pay through the nose, but ordinary people will have to pay for the goods we bring them. Anybody buying anything in a shop, be it an elderly woman or a child, will have to pay.”
All the protesting truck drivers I speak to talk about the frequent and heavy taxes on their income — the inevitable spot fines on the road, a goods transport licence, official taxes and now Platon (the system’s name comes from the Russian for “payment per tonne”), which was introduced in late 2015, as well. It’s about 2,000 kilometres from Makhachkala to Moscow, and the rise in Platon’s rates comes to an extra 14,000 roubles (£196) one way.
Platon is a toll system for large trucks (anything over 12 tonnes) using the motorways. The official justification the Russian government gives for the toll is to pay for the damage to the roads supposedly caused by heavy trucks. The system was introduced in November 2015, and all HGVs were required to register for it from April 2016.
In that same government directive, it was stated that the Russian Ministries of Transport, Economic Development and Finance would need to conclude a concessionary agreement with RT-Invest Transport Systems, a company half owned by Igor Rotenberg (the son of oligarch Arkady Rotenberg, a close friend of Vladimir Putin) and a quarter-owned by Rostec, which is controlled by Sergei Chemezov, another Putin ally.
Igor Rotenberg is the creator and developer of Platon, and the Russian state will pay his company 10.6 billion roubles (£149 million) a year for 13 years for the privilege of using it. Over that period, two million Platon systems will be installed in trucks and 481 control points put in place, as well as an additional 100 mobile units.
The first protest against the introduction of the system took place in many Russian cities in November 2015, before it was even rolled out. Initially, the idea was that truckers should pay 3.73 roubles per kilometre. The truckers decided to organise a mass protest rally to Moscow. But many of them never made it: the traffic cops around the regions organised road blocks, found excuses to stop drivers and either fined them or confiscated their licences.
“Platon has been in operation for a year and a half now. Let them show me even one kilometre of road that has been built or repaired with this money”
After the bureaucrats saw the scale of the protests, they did in fact cut the tariff from 3.73 roubles to 1.53 per kilometre. On 23 March this year, Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev had a meeting with truckers’ representatives, the outcome of which was to extend the discount period for the system: instead of being doubled, as initially planned, it would be increased from 15 April by just 25%, to 1.90 roubles a kilometre.
Platon’s official website states that “the funds raised are transferred to Russia’s Federal Exchequer on a daily basis and allocated to the maintenance of motorways, the financing of road building and repairs and improvements in road transport infrastructure.” The truckers, however, have no faith in the government’s good intentions and believe the money will disappear into officials’ pockets.
“Platon has been in operation for a year and a half now,” says striker Zainalabit Bagavov with anger in his voice. “Let them show me even one kilometre of road that has been built or repaired with this money. When you drive along the river Don, there are 10-15 stretches with tolls of 500, 400 or 300 roubles (£4-£7). They come along every 30-40 kilometres. The display panels read Rosavtodor [state road agency], but in small letters underneath is the name of a private company, Horns and Hoofs, so none of it goes into the public purse.
“If the government increased the price of diesel by a rouble a litre, people wouldn’t be so angry. It would be expensive, but you’d at least be getting your tank filled up. But here, we’re supposedly paying for something, somewhere, but no one has a clue where the money goes, or on what, and why they’re fleecing us”.
Dagestan’s striking truckers began to move towards the Manas Circle on 26 March. They tell me that as soon as other protesters started joining them, several army trucks full of National Guard troops appeared from nowhere.
“And they’re still here, standing around waiting for the order to attack,” Umar Garisov tells me. “They can’t stop the protest, but sometimes they start bugging our guys. They ask people with cars to move them from the verge, saying they were blocking the road. Look, the cars are on the hard shoulder – the road’s over there. How are they blocking it?”
But the strikers did get into a standoff with National Guard troops. On the first day of the strike, the truckers at Manas stopped trucks coming from Azerbaijan, asking them to show solidarity with them and “stop for a day, at least” or reschedule their drive along the road.
“We didn’t like the fact that they were working while we were protesting,” Bagavov tells me. “We’re hoping to bring our problems to Putin’s notice, and they’re driving past as though nothing’s happening. We stopped one guy and said, ‘park your truck, stop for a day at least. And tell your mates that are on their way from Azerbaijan to support us too’. That’s how the trouble started: one of our lads threw some stones at one of their trucks and there was a fight. The troops started firing into the air to scare the crowd and arrested four of our guys. They fined them and let them go. There was a strike in Italy ten days before ours and they paralysed the roads completely. But we weren’t blocking the traffic, just asking for a bit of solidarity.”
The strikers were expecting some reaction to their protest from the local authorities and the media. On the first day of the strike, Yakub Khudzhayev, Dagestan’s Deputy Minister of Transport, visited to them. He listened to their demands and left. That was when they decided to attract some public attention with a mass truck rally.
The action took place the next day, 28 March, with around 300 vehicles. The initial idea was to drive in convoy from Manas to the village of Shamkhal, 15km northwest of Makhachkala. But the truckers turned back half way. The motorway goes through a control point at the city limits, and the drivers were not allowed any further.
“We drove in such a way so as not to block any other traffic,” the truckers say. “We had one wheel on the verge and kept quite a distance between the trucks, so that car drivers could overtake us. The front of the column was probably at the edge of Makhachkala while the back was still here. But at the control point on the southern side of the city we were stopped and sent back.” The protesters drove just 30 kilometres in all. And again, apart from drivers of other vehicles on the road, no one noticed them. So the strikers decided to try again on Friday, 31 March.
In February 2016, however, Russia’s State Duma passed a law equating car rallies to public demonstrations: in other words, they needed permission from the authorities. The Dagestan authorities were told about the protest in advance, but not about the rally. The truckers could have been landed with a fine of up to 300,000 roubles (£4,226), but managed to avoid it.
On the evening of 31 March, video footage recorded on mobile phones started appearing on social media. On one clip, a representative of Moscow’s truckers’ trade union says that troops were massed around the Manas Circle, trying to disperse the truckers by force, but that Dagestani media had been ordered not to report this.
According to the truckers, the National Guard forces at Manas knew about the planned mass action and in the early afternoon around 25 trucks full of troops arrived and started surrounding the site. Other truckers also arrived and soon there were about 1,000 trucks.
“We got together after Friday prayers and decided to go for it,” Garisov tells me. “We switched on our engines and started moving off 10-20 minutes later, when they had warmed up. But we couldn’t get out, they’d blocked the road. In fact they’d used the Ural trucks to block the Kayakent roundabout, the Izerbash, all the car parks, the slip roads on and off the motorway – everything. They didn’t allow a single truck along that stretch of road. Only cars were allowed along it – trucks were diverted into parking areas. One that was laden was also sent into a truck park, but later managed to leave”.
On the same day, the republic’s Vice-Premier Shamil Isayev arrived at the protest camp, and after hearing the truckers’ demands he suggested creating a joint working party that would include one person from each district and each transport company, as well as representatives of community organisations and the relevant administrative bodies and authorities. And as for the transport tax, Isayev said that once Russia’s Federal Tax Service and Road Traffic Safety Inspectorate databases were updated, it should only take two or three months to sort the matter out.
On 2 April, Gazel delivery vans turned up at the roundabout to support the truckers. About 100 drivers drove round the roundabout and then left their vans in the covered market area, where the trucks are now parked. The van drivers stood around all day with the truckers; most of them left as night fell but some stayed for a second day. And on 6 April, local car drivers supported the striking truckers by holding their own Makhachkala-Manas protest rally.
The truck drivers have the general support of the Dagestan public. Innumerable messages about “why truckers’ work should be respected” and requests to support the protesters with a car rally have been posted on WhatsApp.
On 3 April, Ministry of Transport officials and Platon’s Dagestan office held a press conference. A few truckers also attended it, but none of them was from the Manas camp.
Yakub Khudzayev, the republic’s Deputy Minister of Transport, remarked that the strikers were constantly moaning about the infringement of their constitutional rights, but forgetting that they were themselves infringing the rights of those whose cars were having stones thrown at them as they drove along the motorway. Khudzayev mentioned several such incidents in the first week of the strike. But when asked by a journalist whether the stone throwers had any connection with the strikers, he admitted that he didn’t know.
Rostransnadzor’s head in Dagestan, Murtuzali Murtuzaliyev, believed that the truck drivers’ complaints about frequent checks on the republic’s motorways were unfounded, and insisted that traffic was only subject to checking in daytime and only at one control point in Dzhemikent, in Derbent. “What we have decided is this,” he said. “If a vehicle has been checked in one location, it will not be checked by Rostransnadzor anywhere else in Dagestan. Its papers will be stamped ‘check passed’ and there’ll be no further problems.”
The representatives from Platon’s Dagestan office were also asked the most important question, about money: how much does the system raise from drivers on Dagestan’s motorways and how much of it goes on improving its roads? Platon’s representatives could not, however, answer the question, saying that they didn’t have that information, and suggested that the question be put to the Federal Ministry of Transport.
“Many road users are complaining about paying money to Platon and not seeing any improvement in any roads,” added Lidiya Abdullayeva, a leading specialist providing information support to users of the system in Makhachkala. And Bashir Dzhankhuvatov, CEO of the YugTrans logistics company, pointed out that HGVs don’t go into city centres and therefore don’t damage city streets. The businessman asked why alternative, toll free roads can’t be built in Russia. As things are, truckers have no choice but to pay to use the only existing roads.
Dzhankhuvatov also complained that with the introduction of transport licences, taxes and now the Platon system, companies can no longer make ends meet, and he is faced with having to shut down his business: “15 years ago we had 160 trucks, now we’re down to 17 or 18.”
Ilyans Mazanov, Deputy Head of Taxation at Dagestan’s Federal Property Tax Service office, reminded the press conference that in 2015 Russia introduced new rules that specifically exempted owners of trucks weighing over 12 tonnes from transport tax. According to the official, truck drivers pay no tax if the amount they pay through the Platon system is higher than or equal to the tax, or the trucker pays only the difference between the tax and what they owe Platon.
Several times, officials at the press conference called on the truckers to disperse, insisting that all the problems that could be solved at regional level were already sorted out or would be soon. But getting rid of Platon is another matter: that will need local Duma Deputies to take the truckers demands to the State Duma. But the strikers are in no hurry to disperse. They say they’re ready to stay where they are until their demands are met.