Sunday, December 06, 2015

Trucker's Maidan In Moscow?

Russian truckers block The Ring Road - [Photo -]
Between the recent mass shootings in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino and the fallout from the Chicago PD's attempt to conceal officer Jason Van Dyke's murder of Laquan McDonald, since Thanksgiving the bulk of mainstream American media attention has been chiefly focused on domestic issues.

So it's understandable why there's been relatively little media focus on an interesting international story that's been unfolding in the Russian capital of Moscow.

As reporter Neil MacFarqhuar wrote in a piece published in The New York Times last week, on Friday hundreds of truck drivers used their rigs to intentionally clog the major traffic artery that circles Moscow known as the MKAD or "The Moscow Ring Road".  

As the Times article reported, the Russian truckers are pissed because of the installation of a nationwide GPS federal toll system that will soon start charging them what they consider to be unfair fees to travel across any federal highways - fees that will add to their overhead and cut deeper into their profits in an already-sagging economy.

The Western economic sanctions imposed on Russia in retaliation for President Vladimir Putin's decision to attack the Ukraine two years ago and later annex Crimea, flat global oil prices and an eye-opening inflation rate of 15.6% have hit average Russian citizens hard in the pocketbook or wallet.

The trucker's peaceful protests reflect a growing discontent with the sluggish Russian economy and with President Putin himself.

It's no state secret that Putin sits atop an oligarchy comprised of close associates made up of billionaires who control the strings of major Russian industries and financial sectors in exchange for their loyalty to Putin.

Igor Rotenberg - ready for GPS highway toll profits
As Paul Gregory reported on last Monday, Russian truckers are particularly angry that half of the company responsible for the new GPS toll system is owned by Igor Rotenberg, (pictured left) a wealthy member of one of the elite families included in Putin's oligarch allies.

As Forbes reports, some of the trucks included in the protests bear signs that read, "Rotenberg Is Worse Than ISIS."

The trucker's demands are aimed straight at Putin's government: they want the GPS toll lifted and both the minister of transportation and Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev fired for their role in allowing it in the first place.

Now Putin is a shrewd and respected leader, but he's in a tough position with the Russian ruble having lost half it's value against the U.S. dollar and the economy down 4% from last year.

Politically, he can't afford to simply throw hundreds of truck drivers in jail as he did in the wake of mass protests in Russia after he took back the presidency for a 3rd term and basically declared any political opposition to be enemies of the state.

Average Russian folks with regular private cars are now starting to join the traffic clog protest too; proving that there's growing public support for the truck driver's cause - which is becoming a collective outlet for what has been repressed anger over the state of the economy and Putin's handling of it.

Remember, it was just about this time back in late November 2013 when thousands of Ukrainians began staging mass protests in the capital of Kiev in response to then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych having backed out of what had been a highly-anticipated economic deal that would have brought the Ukrainian economy closer to the European Union.

Ukrainian protests in 2014
Those protests led to the ouster of the Russian-backed Ukrainian government and an internal civil war and regional conflicts which sparked the Western sanctions against Russia that are one of the reasons for the current trucker's protests in Moscow.

The last thing Putin needs is a "Maidan in Moscow", but he can't simply throw a loyal oligarch family like the Rotenbergs under the bus either.

The truckers know this, and are calling for a $500 billion fine against the Rotenberg family for their role in trying to profit from federal taxes imposed on Russian drivers who use the federal highway system.

According to Forbes, the Rotenberg-backed GPS toll company would get a 20% commission from the highway tolls; which common sense says is highway robbery.

Until the trucker's demands are met, the truckers plan to keep clogging the Ring Road to bring attention to their demands and what they see as cronyism on the part of the Russian government at a time when people are hurting economically.

Now I've visited Moscow before and I can tell you from personal experience that like any major international city, traffic can be pretty tricky there.

If you're curious to read a pretty good take on The Moscow Ring Road from a real Russian, take a minute or two to check out this page about Moscow Roads; it's informative and pretty funny.

The Moscow Ring Road
Think about what The Beltway is like for drivers in D.C., Maryland and parts of Northern Virginia, except with not nearly enough exits, and an outdated road design from the Soviet era and you'll get the idea.

One of the reasons that this story interested me is because as a child, I was fascinated with trucks.

I was one of those kids content to sit in the yard rolling my Tonka trucks around in the dirt making gurgling truck noises for hours.

On family road trips I was perfectly happy to spend hours in the back seat watching passing trucks on the highway.

There's no doubt that trucks have have had a significant impact on American culture in this country.

Kris Kristofferson & Ali McGraw truck it up in Convoy
From the economic impact as more and more freight was shipped across the nation via truck rather than by rail.

And on the political landscape as powerful national unions like the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters evolved to wield significant influence on politics and politicians with regards to issues like labor laws, foreign tariffs, tolls, highway construction and fuel and emissions standards for trucks.

Trucks have had a significant impact on popular entertainment too.

As a kid, I thought the 1978 film Convoy directed by noted director Sam Peckinpah was literally one of the coolest films I'd ever seen - vengeful truckers forming a mile-long convoy of tractor-trailers in defiance of a corrupt sheriff? You could have left me in the theater for a week.

The film was actually based on the 1975 hit single "Convoy" by C.W. McCall which uses catchy CB radio slang to tell the song of a bunch of truck drivers who form a convoy and race across America in defiance of cops and the law.

If you're old enough to remember, the song went to number one on both country and pop charts and also climbed to number one in Canada and Australia too - it was hit across Europe as well.

My older sister Lisa knew of my fondness for trucks and in 1975 she actually bought me the 7-inch 45 RPM single record of the song "Convoy" on which the film was based and I literally wore out the needle on our turntable in the family room playing it over and over on the stereo. 

The song and the movie sparked a nationwide fascination with CB radios, which prior to that were mostly used only by truck drivers to communicate with one another.

After the hit song and the movie came out, millions of people began to buy CB's for their cars and it became a fad to listen to truck drivers talking to one another; regular drivers used them to socialize and find out where police had set up speed traps with radar guns. 

The popularity of Convoy (the song) sparked the director and former stuntman Hal Needham to make the 1977 comedy Smokey and the Bandit starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jackie Gleason and Jerry Reed.

Originally intended as a B-movie to capitalize on the popularity of the song Convoy and the explosion of the CB fad, it was made on a $3.3 million budget and went on to make over $126 million at the box office and was the 2nd highest grossing film of 1977.

The Trans Am that Burt Reynolds' character drove sparked a huge spike in sales of the car nationwide and the film spawned two sequels - it also inspired the CBS television series The Dukes of Hazzard.

Now it's late and before I digress any further, it's about time for me to go watch Homeland.

But I couldn't reflect back on my youthful truck fascination without mentioning one of the all-time classic truck-associated TV series, the memorable but short-lived NBC show BJ and the Bear.

The show ran for what I felt was a too-short three seasons, but I never missed an episode.

Now it's possible that this show may have had one of the silliest premises of all time; a friendly independent truck driver named BJ McKay (played by Greg Evigan) travels the highways eluding the evil Sheriff Lobo while getting into misadventures with (wait for it...) his best friend - a pet chimpanzee named Bear.

B.J. and the Bear - classic American TV
I don't know who came up with the show, the legendary Glen A. Larson produced it, but it reads like a cheap knock-off of the Smokey and the Bear and Convoy premises - Kris Kristofferson gets Ali McGraw, Burt Reynolds gets Sally Field  and Greg Evigan gets paired in the truck with a monkey?

Looking back one can only imagine the heady aroma of a Kenworth truck cab occupied by a long-haul trucker and his faithful pet monkey, but I seriously loved that show and was absolutely crushed when it was canceled in 1981 as America's truck and CB radio craze began to ebb.

Ah, the 70's, great times for popular entertainment and trucks in general.

I highly doubt any of the hundreds of Russian truckers protesting on the Moscow Ring Road is accompanied by a pet monkey.

But let me tell you, if someone decides to reboot B.J. and the Bear set in Moscow with a likable Russian truck driver determined to fight the oppressive political system with the help of his trusty pet monkey, I'll be the first to watch it.

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