Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Truckers Strike Becomes More Political, Making a Kremlin Crackdown More Likely

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 19 – As their strike continues across Russia into its 24th day, the long-haul drivers say that they intend to create their own political party to press their agenda, a step that has attracted support from Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeny Royzman, KPRF Duma deputy Valery Rashkin and opposition leader Aleksey Navalny.

            The idea of a truckers’ political party was suggested by Aleksey Kaldikhin, a leader of the long-haul truckers in Saratov; and it is entirely possible that other drivers and political leaders will back his proposal.  But Anton Chablin, a journalist who specializes on the North Caucasus where the strike is strongest, says there are risks for the truckers in taking such a step.

            In a commentary on Kavkazskaya politika today, Chablin notes that even though perhaps as many as one million drivers are now on strike and as consumers in 30 or more federal subjects are suffering from shortages as a result, the Kremlin’s media blackout has kept the strike from blocking the introduction of the Plato system (

            The truckers are getting their message out, however, via the Internet, with video clips showing their meetings and empty shelves; and they are attracting statements of support from opposition politicians, including Navalny who released a video clip of his own on behalf of the strikers.

            “I have a cousin,” he said, “who works as a long-haul driver, and therefore for me, their problems aren’t abstract. I understand quite well that this is one of the most difficult kinds of work. People are simply trying to survive and feed their families,” a position other opposition figures have echoed as well.

            But the politicization of the strike raises questions, and Chablin interviewed Sergey Smirnov, the head of the Applied Political Science Foundation, about some of them.  According to the Moscow analyst, “the politicization (or, at a minimum, attempts at it) of the protest actions of the long-haul drivers as with any other protest movement was inevitable.”

            The very same thing happened, Smirnov says, with the protests of depositors who felt themselves deceived. “But in fact,” statements by opposition leaders in favor of the position of the strikers are “not support but the use of them as a protest resource.” Moreover, “in nine cases out of ten,” the opposition figures don’t care about the issues of those they say they back.

            And that, Chablin argues, means that this political support may not work for the drivers.  On the one hand, it may alienate some truckers who are quite ready to protest against the Plato fee system but are far less willing to demonstrate against the Russian prime minister let alone the country’s president.

            On the other, by becoming political, the drivers are likely to cause the Russian authorities to take a harder line in any negotiations and even to decide to apply more repressive measures against them, something that could end the strike even if it left the truckers angry and the store shelves empty.

He argues that the experience of the miners who succeeded in getting the authorities to make concessions by talking to representatives of the ruling United Russia party is suggestive. Such people, Chablin says, actually can help the drivers unlike the communists or other opposition groups who will only make use of them.

Chablin might be correct if the authorities showed any willingness to talk to the truck drivers; but so far at least, not only have the powers that be in Moscow refused to cover the strike but they have been unwilling to negotiate at all, preferring instead to have regional governments to employ repressive measures against the drivers.

            Unless that changes and soon, the drivers and the opposition may gain a certain synergy from cooperating, a reality that Moscow needs to consider as it tries to act as if nothing is happening on the roads of Russia.

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