Russia’s angry long-haul truckers have reached a fork in the road.

Their protests against new road tolls began in early November and have now reached the edge of Moscow.

But there is no sign that the truck drivers are getting closer to having the Kremlin meet their demands. The government doesn’t notice them or listen to them and seems to be simply waiting for the protests to subside on their own.

The truck drivers have now reached the bifurcation point faced by the last mass Russian protest movement—the demonstrators who came out onto the streets of Moscow and other big cities in 2012 after the disputed parliamentary elections.

Like the 2012 protestors, the truckers are now left with two options. They can either quietly disperse or they can escalate and invite trouble. The second option would lead to criminal charges of extremism and prison sentences.

It’s no longer enough to broadcast slogans that hark back to the old Russian proletariat and contrast the truckers’ manly working-class demands with the boyish intelligentsia of the 2012 protestors. Many of those boys are still serving real prison terms after they called for a radical reform of the system itself.

Having hit a dead end, the truckers are resorting to a tried-and-true Russian recipe. They are bowing their heads to the czar, asking for their supplications to be heard. This only illustrates the heart of the problem: Russia’s personalized power system and the absence of functional representative bodies and channels for relaying public opinion.

The truckers have declared that they will be prepared to honor the outcome of a nationwide referendum on abolishing the controversial Platon payment system, which is the root of their discontent. But the Kremlin is not playing along.

Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov let them know how the Russian leadership defines the contours of the problem: this is a specific industry-related issue that comes under the remit of the Ministry of Transport. Moreover, Russian legislation stipulates that a budgetary issue cannot be put to referendum vote. Platon, says the Kremlin, is a revenue issue that can only be decided within the corridors of power, not outside them.

The authorities are letting it be known that they are not persuaded by appeals to public opinion. Public opinion only matters to them in election campaigns or when measuring the president’s job approval ratings (plus, from time to time, for proving that the public supports a symbolic action in places like Crimea, Donbas, Syria, and now Turkey).

What is wrong with this picture?

The progressive segments of Russian society are rooting for the truckers because they want to see the wheels of their trucks run over the regime. But that is not going to happen. We are not in the Poland of the 1980s, when one Gdansk shipyard was the agent of regime change. 

According to the Levada Center, an independent polling organization, 70 percent of the public supports the truckers. That roughly reflects the same proportion of the population that is economically distressed. They are feeling the effects of inflation and the shortage of household goods in their shopping baskets, from laundry powder to cheap vegetables. They feel solidarity with those who are being ripped off by a corrupt system that does not care about anyone else’s opinion.

And yet those discontented 70 percent are mostly the same people as the 80 percent of the population who, as the Levada Center is also recording, support the Russian president—the national leader who gave them back Crimea and restored Russia’s “great power” status.

In other words, these people do not see a connection between the system, the new “great power,” and the way the truck drivers are being treated. What’s more, even the truckers themselves do not see it. They are blaming the minister of transport, the prime minister, or some oligarch or other—anyone, it seems, but the rent-seeking system itself.

It is not just the state that does not listen—society is not seeing, either. It fails to see the link between the repressive political system on the one hand and Russians’ worsening economic plight on the other. So the non-seeing society continues to support the non-listening elite.

This is the whole picture that the protesting truckers fail to see. If they do not, their calls for a referendum or appeals to the constitution are unlikely to get them further down a road that already appears to be blocked.

This article originally appeared in Russian in 

  • Andrei Kolesnikov