Keep on Trucking

So the big drama this week is about the independent trucker protest against the “Platon” road tax system. The truckers threatened to cause major traffic problems on Moscow’s outer ring highway, but since there appears to be a media blackout, it’s hard to get up to date information on the situation. Yandex maintains a special traffic monitoring service, but as I write it’s not showing any major disturbances. Besides that, the Russian state media is apparently ignoring the protest.

Naturally, some Russian government figures have tried to paint the truckers as paid agents of America, as always. The overall reaction, however, has been quite varied. Truckers are seen as those ordinary hard-working Russians who support the regime, and indeed many of them still do. It’s a bit difficult to portray them as West-leaning dupe and paid agents, which might explain the media blackout.

On the other hand, people expecting something big to come of this are most likely engaging in wishful thinking for a number of reasons. The first is that Russian society has for many years been extremely atomized and individualistic. “If it doesn’t effect me personally, who cares?” That’s the general attitude of most people. When the teachers and medical professionals protested massive cuts last autumn, nobody cared. It’s not like in Ukraine where the beating of some students who wanted European integration brought out scores of people who had their own agenda and grievances against the government.

Secondly, Russia’s media, politicians, and intelligentsia…Hold on a second, can you really call pro-Kremlin ideologues “intelligentsia?” There ought to be another word for it, like maybe dumbassia. Anyway, all those groups have concocted all sorts of ad hoc reasoning to explain why Putin and the overall system are not to blame for problems like Platon, in spite of the fact that Platon is owned by the Igor Rotenberg, the son of one of Putin’s close friends.

The explanatory narrative goes like this- Putin is a wise and just leader, but there are corrupt people around him and beneath him. He doesn’t know about all their activities. Just take a look at these quote from the VICE article quoted above:

“We didn’t come here to discuss Putin,” Andrei said, arguing Putin wasn’t to blame for his associates’ actions. “Do you know what your friends are doing at all times?”

“We support the government, we just don’t like this (Platon system),” added Sergei, a Moscow trucker. “People hand out fliers here, but why? We only care about one thing. We don’t get into politics.”

What you’re seeing there is typical Russian submissiveness. You’re allowed to criticize certain things but you must remain non-political and you must never question whether Putin, in spite of the authority he has wielded for 15 years, might be part of the problem. No, Putin is simply ignorant about the corruption his close friends engage in, but you mustn’t suggest this makes him a bad leader!

For this and other reasons, the trucker protest is likely to fizzle out. I don’t really see the Rotenbergs backing down on this one, so most likely the truckers will just take the hit and see their incomes drastically reduced. But that’s okay because remember, they’ve got to stand up to America! And don’t forget gay parades! It’s perfectly fine to live in poverty in a country where the government happily picks your pocket right in front of your face so long as there are no gay parades! Yes, folks, there are people who actually believe this.

So for the Goble-like crowd who’d like to see this as the beginning of trucker-maidan let me tell you this: you’re being just as unrealistic as the pro-Kremlin morons who are claiming this is being financed by the US. The only way you’re going to see mass protests that do anything significant is when you have more generalized poverty and other calamities.

Even then, the result isn’t going to be stellar because these protests will probably fall prey to enterprising con men and other demagogues who will promise the people to rebuild Russia’s imperial greatness. Once again a majority of people will trade their freedom to that guy in exchange for “stability,” and once again he’ll feather his own nest and help out his friends and family by reserving spaces at the trough of national wealth.

Start your week off with a positive note, I always say!





16 thoughts on “Keep on Trucking

  1. Estragon

    “Putin is simply ignorant about the corruption his close friends engage in, but you mustn’t suggest this makes him a bad leader”

    I think “good Tsar – bad advisors” is the term for this syndrome.

      1. A.I.Schmelzer

        I actually would not be surprised if Putin throws the truckers a bone.
        He very much does paint himself as “Good Czar bad Bojars”, and that included occassionally reigning in the Bojars a bit. It is kind of inconvenient because Rotenberg is a pretty solid “loyal vasall”, and reigning him in too much would diminish the value of being loyal to the Czar.

        What will, in the best Czarist tradition, likely happen is that Rotenberg Jr. loses his contract, some low level heads will roll, and Rotenberg Jr. then gets another cushy contract somewhere else with instructions to steal less blatantly in the future.

        This will cause rapid Putin fanboys to see this as a “Great Putin Senpai finally moves against the Oligarch!” thing (no such thing will happen), and the “high state” may actually use this usefull idiots as leverage to extract additional concessions from other Oligarchs, in addition, Vatniks everywhere will point to the fact that one can totally have successfull peacefull protests in Russia so Russia is totally democratic and free.

        Last but not least, the various Oligarchs are quite aware that not all of their money grubbing schemes will work all the time. Given that Rotenbergs Jr. development was paid by Gazprom bank anyway (so no real loss for Rotenberg), his own assets arent seriously touched, and the high state will make clear to other Oligarchs that Rotenberg losing his contract does not mean “Open season for Rotenberg!”.

      2. A.I.Schmelzer

        There are other options. For example, the police could simply claim that they cant be arsed to actually punish people who dont use Platon (this bone was already thrown, but the truckers, quite correctly, considered it to be not enough), or the high state could look into how that contract actually happened, or newly found technical difficulties (it is not as if Platon is working without a hitch) would mean that Platon has to be delayed for a while.
        As a matter of fact, some “enterprising grey hats” may even simply cause this technical difficulties without too much trouble for them.

        From what I get, even “well connected Putin loyalists” see Platon as a bit too blatant in terms of throwing public money to Rotenberg (money that is stolen by Rotenberg cannot be stolen by other “well connected Putin loyalists”). Also, a number of businessmen would vastly prefer that transportation in Russia remains cheap, since expensive transportation would be quite bad for their business. Platon would adversly affect Oligarchs who move things in Russia by road, and there are a couple of them (although these generally play second fiddle to Oligarchs based on natural resource exploitation, they do have a voice in the Kremlin, they also have the resources to hire some “enterprising grey hats” whose actions would troll Rotenberg and save them money).

        Another angle is that the Siloviki dont like it very much. The thing is, Platon is also some pretty major national level spyware which would allow a potential adversary to effectively gauge and map Russias road transport system, possibly in real time if said adversary gets access. Consider the things you could datamine out of Platon once it ran for a while.
        FSB and co. love spying on their own citizens, but they dislike if a jewish Oligarch like Rotenberg does it, especially if he does it with taxpayer (which they see as their) money.
        FSB does iirc have some other scores to settle (basically Rotenberg stole money that they wanted to steal) with Rotenberg anyway. Even if the FSB doesnt take it away from Rotenberg, bringing “security concerns” to the table would result in some “in depth examination of Platons security”, probably by the FSB, and would be an excellent opportunity to gain some additional “contributions” from Rotenberg. It would also stall out Platon for a while and thus likely make the protests dissipate.

        So, if the Oligarchs reliant on road transport, and the Siloviki realize that they have a joint interest in putting Platon under a different ownership, some cheaper subform of Platon, under indirect command of the FSB so the spyware stays (and in FSB hands) but the price goes down, could well happen. It would publically be sold as “benovelent Czar Putin reining in the Bojars”.

        Putin has a number of ways to diffuse this crisis with minimal to no cost for him.

  2. sglover

    “When the teachers and medical professionals protested massive cuts last autumn, nobody cared. ”

    Call it off-topic if you like, but I’m going to use this quote to segue into something I’ve been wondering for a while. Early on in his administration, Putin was supposed to be some kind of reformer. For instance, supposedly he was going to remake the military into a non-conscript, careerist/professional organization.

    I’d heard that he was also going to rationalize the zany Russian pension system. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve heard of pension benefits including (among other things) lifetime transit passes and apartments, in addition to (instead of?) some monthly stipend. And supposedly these vary from city to city and from enterprise to enterprise. If one wanted to run some kind of coherent national pension system, it’d be hard to draw up budgets for such a crazy quilt.

    So anyway, my question is, have there been any changes to this system in the Putin years? If so, have they been good, bad, insignificant?

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Probably Putin’s most noticeable reform was a 13% flat tax. Prior to that, the tax code was ridiculously complicated and with the reform, at least some people started paying taxes. Plenty still avoid it, of course, but I remember that in the beginning there was a significant increase in tax revenue.

      As for the professional army thing- that promise has been around for years, but today the military is still dependent on conscripts. In 2013, Russian troops finally got socks, and the ability to shower every day instead of just 2-3 times a week as in the past.

      I can’t speak for pensions but they are still critically low compared to other industrialized nations. In fact the situation is so bad that a few years ago some official in the Kremlin actually suggested shipping Russian pensioners off to countries where their pensions would buy more, e.g. Bulgaria or Egypt. His calculations were almost certainly off, as well.

  3. sglover

    Thanks. I was aware that the army reform plans never quite panned out. And I’m not surprised that pensions are low — I’d be surprised if they weren’t — but I am curious to know if the system’s been rationalized. Or even if there is anything that could be called a “system”, at the national level.

    Ah yes, Putin’s flat tax. Years ago it probably got him more good will from American right-wingers than all his tough-guy antics. The flat tax is why Russia is such an economic dynamo, right? At least, I’m pretty sure Steven Forbes, the American Enterprise Institute, et al promised as much….

    1. armoured

      There was a reform underway to move pensions from a pay-as-you-go system (out of general taxes) to a savings-based scheme. It was basically to apply to younger workers (born after 1968 or something?), although mixed.
      Then they ran into the same thing that most pay-go to savings schemes run into: there’s a gap while you transition. That hit a few years ago so they ‘paused’ the contributory scheme. Which they keep repeating.
      Basically the government is robbing the new system to pay for toys, and no-one trusts that. So Russians will end up with the same pension system as before, comprised entirely of how much the government wants to buy them off or screw them at any given point in time.
      Oh wait, that should read “how much the government wants to fulfill the sacred contract with previous generations and ensure them a life of respect, or ensure the continued viability of Russia’s status as a great power by investing in the future.”

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      From the descriptions I have read, it seems they have to check in at some kind of stations, perhaps weigh stations, and pay the tax. Or they have to pay the tax at some special office in between jobs or something. It’s hard for me to tell since I don’t know much about trucking and don’t drive long distance in Russia.

      1. armoured

        There are several components as I understand: they have to file their route in advance and pay tax based on that. Then they have to buy and have running a GPS-like device. They can be stopped by road police at any time if they’re not on the route, system out, not being used properly, etc. So one issue truckers have is that technically the system doesn’t work, they have to pay for the equipment to make it work, and that it is technically a huge pain if they need to change routes – which is very, very common for small trucking companies (not just using a different route, but changing entirely when they get a contract). Plus it is 3.7 rubles a km.
        For comparison I did a quick calc when some economist said it would be far more effective, cheaper, and easy to administer to just add a bit to the excise tax for diesel. By my calc, it’s about 1 ruble a liter that would be needed. No hundreds of millions of dollars in investments, no need to buy special equipment, no filing, nothing – and to reach the same (stated) effect of raising money for roads.

      2. gbd_crwx

        OK, so if Armoured is correct it seems like a system wereit is easy to transgress and opportunities to skim off a little bit here and a little bit there.

  4. Asehpe

    “Even then, the result isn’t going to be stellar because these protests will probably fall prey to enterprising con men and other demagogues who will promise the people to rebuild Russia’s imperial greatness. Once again a majority of people will trade their freedom to that guy in exchange for “stability,” and once again he’ll feather his own nest and help out his friends and family by reserving spaces at the trough of national wealth.”

    Does this mean that you have no hope of the Russian political system improving in the near future? I.e., do you see no realistic way whereby things might improve? Because, if even revolution is probably going to be co-opted by con men, what else is left?


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