Russian lorry drivers gather in Khimki outside Moscow
Moscow - AFP
A group of Russian truck drivers on Friday huddled by their lorries near a shopping mall on the edge of Moscow as a rare protest against the authorities under President Vladimir Putin crept closer to the capital.
Truckers have blocked roads across the country in recent weeks to protest against a new tax they say will drive them out of business -- but their demonstrations have gone largely ignored by the subservient state media and the authorities.
Now a trickle of them have started converging on Moscow in a bid to force Putin -- whose close ally's son part-owns the company collecting the new road tax -- to listen directly to their grievances.
"We want to be heard because the media hides the information about us and does not tell people, the population as a whole, what is happening," said self-employed driver Dmitry, 28, from the Moscow region, standing next to the group of some twenty trucks.
"We want our government, our lawmakers and our president to pay attention to us."
So far the protest movement appears to lack any clear leadership and only a relatively small number of drivers have headed to the outskirts of Moscow, without much idea of what to do next.
Participants say they have faced police harassment and that regional authorities have tried to block more demonstrators coming to the capital.
- Close Putin ally -
The truck drivers are furious over a tax hike introduced earlier this month that saw higher levies slapped on heavy goods vehicles after the authorities said they should effectively pay for wear and tear on the roads.
The government -- struggling to cope with an economic crisis caused in part by the fall in oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine -- was hoping to raise some 40 billion rubles (570 million euros, $600 million) with the new tax in 2016.
But the drivers say they too are struggling to cope with the economic downturn and that the new fees will push them over the edge.
"There's almost no money left for living: the competition is high, the pay for cargo transportation is low, the fuel is getting more expensive every day" said driver Andrei, who had driven seven hours from his home city of Vologda northeast of Moscow.
What has increased their ire is that a private firm has been handed the lucrative contract to collect the tax -- and that the company is part-owned by the son of one of Putin's closest allies, billionaire Arkady Rotenberg.
For critics it is yet another example of the crony capitalism rife among the elite that has seen those close to ex-KGB agent Putin amass vast fortunes, even as the country has slumped into economic crisis.
"Everyone has long ago understood that he listens only to them (his friends) and the people count for little," said driver Yevgeny Staritsyn.
Protests are tightly controlled in Russia and the truck drivers insist their demonstration is aimed only at scrapping the new tax and is not "political" at all.
"We want to work. We aren't interested in protesting for the sake of it," said driver Dmitry.
"We were forced to do this, to stand out in the rain and the cold, and we will stay here until they notice us."