Saturday, December 2, 2017

Russia’s Long-Haul Truckers Angered but Not Intimidated by ‘Foreign Agent’ Label

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 2 – Long-haul truckers across Russia are angry that Moscow has labeled their union “a foreign agent” but they are not intimidated by that moniker and say they will resume their strike in two weeks in order to force the government to listen to their cries of despair and meet them at least half way.

            Five journalists from Radio Liberty’s Siberian Realities spoke with six representatives of drivers and union leaders about their reaction to the “foreign agent” charge and about their plans to file suit against the government challenging its finding and to resume their strike on December 15 (

                Nataly Guseynova, a Novosibirsk truck company owner who is the Siberian coordinator for the Carriers Union, says that Moscow’s decision to call the union as foreign agent is baseless and reflects not the application of Russian law but rather the arbitrary decision of some senior official in Moscow for political reasons.

            She says the union will appeal the justice ministry’s action and will carry out its planned strike two weeks from now.

            Aleksandr Chernyk of Irkutsk’s PROAVTO says the identification of the union as “a foreign agent” will allow the security agencies to track more closely union activities and to dissuade some drivers from taking part.  But the charge is so absurd that it shows that in Russia today, “it is possible to accuse anyone.”

            The reason there haven’t been more protests and strikes by the truckers, he continues, is that economic conditions have become so dire that people are forced to work even under the most adverse conditions.  But the fact that the Plato money goes not to the state but to one of Putin’s friends will ensure that more people will come out December 15.

            Andrey Grekov, a long-haul driver from Omsk, hasn’t worked as one for six months because the Plato system has made any activity other than sitting and doing nothing unprofitable. It is thus driving independent drivers into the arms of big companies and hurting the economy as well.

            Zoya Zholnerchuk, who heads a small transport company in Omsk, shares that view. She says that Moscow is against independent drivers and wants them all to be controlled by large companies that the regime can more easily put pressure on. From the center’s perspective, “everyone must be a slave.”

            Andrey Bazhutin, the president of the Carriers Union, says that he and his drivers have the same view of “this political circus” that they did before the “foreign agent” label was pinned on them.  He says that the small amount of money that supposedly came from Germany likely was a Russian government “provocation.”

            “Our organization,” he continues, “doesn’t get involved in political activity. It defends the rights and freedom of citizens.” As for the notion that his plans to run for president were behind Moscow’s decision, Bazhutin is skeptical: “To express one’s intention and to take part are different things.”

            He adds: “It is very strange when Russian guys, born and living in Russia are called foreign agents. Many of them have never left the country … they work here, and their parents and grandparents are buried in this land. Over all this time, we only once went to Germany to meet with union officials there.”

                But Bazhutin says, Medvedev and Putin routinely go abroad so what is the problem?

                And Igor Rybsky, a driver from Krasnoyarsk who has taken part in all Russian trucker strikes, says he will be on the picket lines later this month. He says that his conscience wouldn’t allow him to do otherwise and that he has the complete support of his wife.  Moreover, “now that we are foreign agents, we must justify that status.”

            Months ago, Russian officials called us “gray carriers,” he says. Now, they call us “foreign agents.” That is insulting, but “we are patient and act by legal means.  We don’t call for anything illegal, but [the powers that be] don’t listen to us.”

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