Tires burning by the roadside, placed by Russia’s angry long-haul truckers, have become a new symbol for the despondent Russian protest movement, which has been in retreat since Vladimir Putin’s latest presidential term began in 2012.

But it looks as though the Russian government will manage to contain the truckers’ strikes and prevent them and other social protests from taking on a political character.

Truckers began blocking highways across Russia in early November. They were angered by a new road tax to be received through a much-resented electronic collection system named Platon. The initial rate of four rubles per kilometer mounts up quickly over Russia’s vast territory, and the stated reason for the new toll—that the money would be used for road repairs—failed to convince, as existing taxes were supposed to pay for that already.

The television news was silent, President Vladimir Putin seemed not to notice, and the protests increased. This is when Russia’s non-systemic opposition, which led anti-government protests in 2011–2012, got involved. Its activists made repeated references to Putin’s old friend and judo partner, billionaire businessman Arkady Rotenberg, whose son Igor heads the company that operates the Platon payment system.

Previously, truckers were supposed to be normal, apolitical citizens. One in four carried a flag supporting Russians in Ukraine in his cab, one in three displayed a portrait of Putin. The government provoked their ire by violating the social contract that underpins the Putin regime, by which the public is expected to stay out of politics in exchange for the government handing out social benefits—or at the very least, not picking the pockets of its citizens.

Along with the truckers, other social groups are also feeling the pain. Public-sector employees are not getting their salaries on time. Drivers are paying a new toll to travel on the Moscow–Zelenograd highway. Paid parking is being introduced in Moscow’s suburban communities, which has already triggered demonstrations.

For years, the authorities have put off making unpleasant decisions. They have taken the paternalistic approach of reassuring people that Russia has a good social safety net that people can rely on in times of trouble. But then, when there is a budget crunch, the state changes its tune all of a sudden and says that one has to pay for everything.

Logic suggests that the social protests should escalate and become political, and that the truckers will carry their protests to the center of Moscow.

Yet this is unlikely to happen. There is no indication that this will become a full-blown political crisis.

It will probably be announced shortly that politicians close to the government have struck a deal that saves the drivers from exorbitant toll fees. In that case, everyone will start forgetting about Rotenberg, no matter how often the opposition mentions him in its video clips.

The truth is that the Russian state has learned how to deal with social protests, and sometimes even deliberately provokes them to let off steam in the society. On occasion, it looks as though they are testing the pain threshold of the public to see how much it can bear.

This kind of protest always begins with apolitical slogans like “Say No to Platon” or “Stop Paid Parking.” There is no big strategy behind them. The government understands this well and doesn’t try to break them up. Then, after negotiations, concessions are offered and the protests stop.

Most Russians expect the government to solve their problems. The majority of protesters always appeal to the president first, believing that the system is working, but failed to address one particular problem. Even in Moscow, where opposition sentiments are higher than in the rest of the country, one slogan at a rally protesting new parking fees was “Putin, Save Us From Paid Parking!”

The authorities also employ the tactic of isolating one protest group from another by telling the group’s leaders that their particular question can indeed be solved, but only if they are “constructive,” “stop rocking the boat,” and “understand that all problems can’t be solved, but theirs can be.” Ultimately, most protesters agree to the government’s concessions.

As a result of these divide-and-rule tactics, disparate social groups (motorists, senior citizens, or those dissatisfied with higher utility charges) rarely unite in protest. A brief protest movement in the Baltic Sea port of Kaliningrad in 2010 was a good lesson for the Kremlin. A rally called to protest a new transport tax attracted about 10,000 people. The authorities were slow to react and anger spread. But the regional assembly eventually repealed the tax hike and Kaliningrad’s governor was forced to step down. The regime learned its lesson.

To appease the striking truckers, the government looks set to lower both the new toll rate and the punitive fines for non-payment of it. Already, in Novosibirsk, the truckers are ready to discuss a toll of one ruble per kilometer.

This kind of deal will satisfy almost everyone: the truckers, whose demands are being partly met, and the government, which keeps the Platon system in place. But, of course, the regime is the real winner. It gave people a chance to vent their pent-up frustration, while also proving that it listened to citizens’ concerns regarding the issues they care about.

There is another important consideration for the men in the Kremlin. They are ready to compromise as long as the public sees the regime as strong. If people begin to perceive the regime as weak, any concessions it makes will be seen as another sign of weakness, and the protests will only escalate.

Andrey Pertsev is a journalist with Kommersant newspaper

By:
  • Andrey Pertsev