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.
Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters

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.
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters
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 hobbled the banking, energy, and arms sectors and look set to be renewed. Meanwhile, Russia is now actively involved in two wars—in Ukraine and in Syria—a further drain on the national treasury.    

The truckers have avoided attacking Putin directly, but it is hard to ignore the politics in the protest signs: “Rotenberg is worse than ISIS” and “Russia without Rotenberg,” an echo of the 2011 protest slogan “Russia without Putin.” The Rotenbergs, close allies of Putin’s, some of whom are sanctioned by the United States, would be in charge of levying the tax and taking 20 percent of the proceeds. If the truckers face resistance from the Kremlin, or if their demands go unmet, there is a chance that they will become further politicized.     

The truckers are at least renewing the idea of civic action in their country. Protest parades and rallies have become rare in Putin’s Russia, as his government has slammed civil society with a series of draconian crackdowns. Groups such as the lauded Memorial human rights organization and the Association of NGOs in Defense of Voters’ Rights (Golos in Russian) have been forced to close their doors.

A police officer walks past a line of trucks, whose drivers are taking part in a protest against a new fee, at a parking lot in the Moscow region, Russia, December 8, 2015.
A police officer walks past a line of trucks, whose drivers are taking part in a protest against a new fee, at a parking lot in the Moscow region, Russia, December 8, 2015.
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters
According to the Russian youth activist Oleg Kozlovsky, the truckers’ revolt has led to a debate within Russian civil society about whether the resistance has staying power. Although the obstacles to forming a mass movement in Russia are daunting, it is never easy to predict when the sparks will ignite widespread civic action. Even TASS, Russia’s official news agency, noted in an “expert opinion” on November 20 that the truckers’ protest posed a threat because it tapped into the anger of a bread-and-butter constituency.  

Although the truck drivers have met with activists and other opposition groups, including activists who have brought them food during protests, they have prevented members of opposition parties from handing out leaflets at their rallies. They believed that such actions were too political and could distract from their cause.  

In any case, the real threat to Putin is not a Maidan-like movement centered in Moscow—that is, a mass mobilization in the capital that would take over the government—but rather a movement that taps into the anti-Moscow undercurrent that is alive throughout Russia. Discontent has spread as Putin has stripped the regions of powers delegated to them by former leader Boris Yeltsin, including tax authority and the election of governors, while saddling them with forced reforms dictated by Moscow, the so-called May orders, which included plans for economic development, reforms in state administration, and various social reforms, including health-care and ethnic policies. Resentment is growing, too, as regional debt rises and social services are cut to pay for Putin’s overseas adventures.

If dispersed regional demonstrations attract the participation of aggrieved ethnic groups, many of which have their own republics within Russia, they may pose the biggest threat to Putin’s grip on power. It is more difficult to brand millions of ordinary people as “traitors” and “CIA agents” than a relatively small number of liberal challengers in the capital. According to a recent poll by the Levada Center and reported by Bloomberg News, most Moscow residents are strongly supportive of the truckers’ strike. One-third of the capital city’s residents “definitely support” the protest, while 38 percent said they were “probably in agreement.”

People shout slogans during the "March of Millions" protest rally in Moscow, September 15, 2012.
People shout slogans during the "March of Millions" protest rally in Moscow, September 15, 2012. Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched though Moscow under streaming banners, flags and balloons on Saturday to demand an end to President Vladimir Putin's long rule and to breathe life into their protest movement.
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters
Putin, like most authoritarian leaders, is aware of the threat and will do everything in his power to stop the revolt from spreading, including by offering minor concessions. So far, his government has refused to engage in direct talks with the truckers. But the Duma did vote to dramatically reduce the fine for noncompliance with the new law. Perhaps hinting at what could come, Ilya Ponomarev, the only member of the Russian Duma who voted against the annexation of Crimea (and later went into exile), insists that change will come to Russia, but it will take time. He says it will happen through a combination of popular pressure and elites turning on Putin.

Research shows that bottom-up nonviolent movements involving strikes, protests, and other acts of civil disobedience attract ten times the level of citizen participation as armed insurgencies, and they are twice as likely to succeed. Popular nonviolent movements also correlate with democratic consolidation. Movements don’t succeed, however, because of spontaneous outbursts of dissent. They succeed because of organization, planning, and wide popular support. If nothing else, the truckers have sounded an alarm that the Kremlin has undoubtedly heard loud and clear.

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  • MARIA J. STEPHAN is Senior Policy Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. WILLIAM B. TAYLOR is the Executive Vice President at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He was previously Special Coordinator for Middle East Transitions in the U.S. State Department.
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