Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters A truck driver stands in front of trucks at a parking lot, as he arrives for a protest against a new fee, in the Moscow region, Russia, December 3, 2015.

Keep on Trucking

Are Truckers Ushering in a Russian Spring?

Across Russia, from St. Petersburg in the north to Volgograd in the south, truckers are on strike. They’re angered by a new road tax that they say is rooted in corruption and will bankrupt them. And so, some 200 long-haul drivers have disrupted roads for over two weeks and have vowed to take their motorized protest to Moscow unless the Russian government removes the tax, fires the transport minister, and fines the oligarch Arkady Rotenberg and his son, whose company was selected to collect the new fees.

In the region and beyond, similar movements that were catalyzed by grievances about corruption and involved diverse groups of protesters, including young people, professionals, and blue-collar workers, have toppled other regimes, including that of Viktor Yanukovych in next-door Ukraine. In his increasingly authoritarian rule, Russian President Vladimir Putin has often denounced such revolts, presumably fearing the same fate. Now he must be especially worried. Past protests in Russia have typically been confined to Moscow and attracted mostly liberal elites, so dissent from a blue-collar constituency hailing from the heartland can’t be good news.

Although there’s a chance that this nonviolent civil resistance might catalyze broader action, whether it will produce a democratic breakthrough depends on the desire and ability of the truckers—and the others now joining them—to diversify their support base, tap into economic and ethnic grievances nationwide, and organize.

A participant wears a T-shirt with an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin during an opposition protest march in Moscow, June 12, 2013.

A participant wears a T-shirt with an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin during an opposition protest march in Moscow, June 12, 2013.

The Russian truckers’ resistance reveals growing unhappiness among ordinary Russians. Although the drivers insist that their protests are strictly over economic issues and that many of them support Putin, in reality, tax policies, inflation, and corruption are highly political issues. The Russian economy is ailing: oil prices are in steady decline, inflation is up 15 percent, the economy is expected to contract by almost four percent in 2015, and average real incomes are set to lose an additional five percent this year. U.S. and European sanctions imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine have

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