MOSCOW - After several weeks of sporadic protests, long-haul truckers from across Russia are threatening to 'march on Moscow' and shut down the capital. Not that most Russians know about it.
At issue: a new federal payment system that raises taxes on per-tonnage hauling of goods across the country called Platon.
The government says the toll is needed for trucking companies to contribute their fair share to federal road repair. Truckers argue the new transport fees are beyond what small-to-midsize businesses can afford.
Moreover, they bristle that the company implementing the program has links to Igor Rotenberg, whose father Arkady Rotenberg is a billionaire friend of President Vladimir Putin.
For truckers and their supporters, the so-called "Rotenberg tax" has become a symbol of Kremlin cronyism that allows insiders to amass vast fortunes while most Russians struggle in a wilting economy.
“I can’t even punch that many zeros into my calculator,” says Alexander Kotov, the head of the inter-regional union of truckers in reference to the amount of money he estimates the Rotenbergs were likely to net through the deal.
Kotov likens the program to the old Russian expression “a feast during the time of plague.”
Amid punitive Western sanctions, falling oil prices, and an economic downturn that has halved Russians' salaries, ”they’re just fine, drinking behind the castle wall,” says Kotov.
“The only thing they need to do is figure out how to keep the money coming in,” he adds, calling the new tax a “small business killer.”
Kotov is not alone. Over the past month, long-haul truckers have held a series of protests against Platon in some 40 cities across Russia – from the Urals to Dagestan to St. Petersburg.
They've also faced a near-universal blackout on state-owned media.
A trucker website forum has also been shut down by authorities, leaving truckers to issue a series of video appeals on Youtube to spread the message of their plight.
The brewing controversy has included its moments of comedy as well.
Evgeny Feodorov, a Duma deputy with the ruling pro-Kremlin United Russia party, recently issued a counter-appeal asking truckers to avoid becoming unwilling puppets and "fifth columnists" in a revolution sponsored by Gos-dep, Russian slang for the U.S. State Department.
“It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad…” says union leader Kotov. “The country faces a serious social and economic conflict. In small towns across Russia - and we have many of them – truckers simply aren’t delivering necessary goods.”
For now, authorities seem to be taking the threat of mass protest more seriously.
On social media and independent websites, truckers from across the country report they’ve suddenly found themselves the subjects of document checks, sobriety tests, and inexplicable detentions – all, they claim, in an apparent attempt to keep them from reaching Moscow.
The government’s heavy-handed response has turned those traditionally considered working class supporters of the Kremlin into leaders of a scattered, and – for many - unexpected, protest movement.
“Of course this is new for me,” says Sergey Gulyaev, the owner of a small independent trucking firm in St. Petersburg who drove to the capital to make his message heard.
“I’ve practically become a revolutionary…and all I want is to go back to work,” says Gulyaev. “Before, my business was enough to feed my family and my children. Now it’s not.”
Observers note the truckers are a far cry from the urban classes that protested en masse against what they said were rigged elections in 2011 and, a year later, Vladimir Putin's controversial return to the Kremlin.
At the time, the Kremlin managed to isolate the opposition movement's calls for increased political participation through a combination of repressive laws and appeals to "traditional values" among working class Russians.
This time isolating restive elements could be harder.
In his annual State of the Union speech on Thursday, President Putin noted the economic hardships many Russians faced - including small business - but made no direction mention of the truckers' rebellion.
Listening in from his truck, Gulyaev says he concluded Putin was powerless to help the truckers’ cause.
“He tells them to help small business, but he’s only one man,” Gulyaev said.
And so, says union leader Alexander Kotov, the protest was likely to begin - in purposeful slow motion.
Protest leaders say 300 trucks have already amassed outside of Moscow. But there are some doubts that 300 is enough to have an impact. Kotov believes it is.
“Even if drivers slow down to 10 kilometers an hour,” says Kotov, “this whole city shuts down.”