The truck drivers unhappy about new tolls and the economy are the kind of bedrock Russians for whom Vladimir Putin has long been a hero.

Share story

MOSCOW — Hundreds of long-distance truckers blocked a lengthy section of the ring road circling the capital, Moscow, on Friday to protest a new national toll, in the first sign that Russia’s economic woes might be eroding the once-unshakeable support for President Vladimir Putin’s government.

The direct object of their ire was Igor Rotenberg, the scion of a billionaire oligarch clan close to Putin, who owns half of a new, GPS-based system that, when fully operational, will charge truckers fees on all federal highways.

Their larger anger, however, was reserved for what they called the government’s failure to alleviate the devastating effects of inflation and recession in the past year, prompted by the steep drop in oil prices, sanctions the West imposed over Ukraine and retaliatory sanctions Russia imposed on Western food imports.

“There is no economic program at all; where is all the money?” said Vladimir Romanov, 65, part-owner of a small Moscow trucking firm with three eighteen-wheelers. “The country is very rich, yet we live like hell.”

The Russian economy is deeply troubled and shows few signs of escaping from its rut, at least as long as prices for oil and other commodities remain depressed. Inflation is running at 15.6 percent, and the economy has shrunk nearly 4 percent in the past year. The ruble has lost about half its value against the dollar, and foreign reserves were hovering around $366 billion, compared with $419 billion a year ago.

While that should mean hard times for everyone, some analysts say something else is at work. Given the shrinking oil revenue and the economy, they say, the Russian elite is seeking new revenue streams at the expense of the middle class.

“At a time when the pie is shrinking, the clans are trying to keep their portion or even expand it,” said Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. The privatized toll system creates a new income source, he noted, but it will cause friction.

The truckers are widely dispersed and hence difficult to control, and their sentiments reflect those of the entire middle class, Petrov said. “They feel that the government is trying to fix budgetary problems by increasing taxes and taking money out of their pockets,” he said.

Under the new system, drivers must buy a tracking device and pay according to their mileage. An 800-mile round trip between Moscow and St. Petersburg costs an extra $33 at current exchange rates and will rise to $66 in March.

Truckers said the new toll amounted to about 10 percent of their revenue for each trip, and it came on top of other hefty transportation taxes, sharply reducing their monthly wages of $500 to $600.

The government argues that the trucks cause significant road wear and says the tolls will generate more than $700 million a year to pay for maintenance. “This is how a transportation system functions worldwide,” Maxim Sokolov, the transportation minister, told state television this week.

Truckers mocked the idea that the toll money would end up being invested in Russia’s notoriously poor roads.

“They have already increased taxes on fuel and promised to cancel the transportation tax, but they have only increased it,” said Vladimir Deryugin, 51, whose truck sat among roughly 20 lined up in an Ikea parking lot in Khimki, a northern satellite of Moscow. A few bore signs saying “No to Platon!” — the Russian acronym for the system. Police cars had blocked all entrances and exits to the lot.

The truck drivers are the kind of bedrock Russians for whom Putin has long been a hero. And even as they railed about the new tolls and the economy, they retained a certain reluctance to criticize the man.

“Our president was duped,” Romanov said. “He signed without thinking. His friends duped him. The son studied in Britain, then he came back. He needs to earn money. So Rotenberg comes to the president and tells him: ‘Let the son earn money.’ ”

The new toll system is operational only in the Moscow region for now, but since that is such a national hub, it has already elicited protests across the country.

One trucker from distant Vladivostok commented on social media that he wanted to join the eastern demonstrations but that the roads were so bad it would take him 12 days to make the trip.

The government evidently hopes to ride out the protests, which went unreported on the main state-run television news channel.

The city of Moscow, meanwhile, said Friday it would have to limit traffic downtown in December to prepare for the Victory Day parade, which is in May.

Putin has not commented publicly on the protests. His spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said it was not a presidential matter but an issue for the ministry of transportation.