DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And let's turn now to Russia where, for weeks now, truck drivers have been protesting a new system of fees for using the highways. They say the fees will bankrupt them, and they're complaining that these fees are being driven by friends of President Vladimir Putin. The protests were pretty much ignored until the cause was taken up by Russia's Communist Party, usually a source of strong support for Putin. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: We're outside the presidential administration building in central Moscow where a small group of truckers are trying to gain attention for their campaign against the road-use fee. Trucks weighing 12 tons or more are required to have a meter that measures how far they travel, and the government charges them a small fee for every kilometer. The money is supposed to be used to upgrade Russia's notoriously bad highway system. But driver Igor Veresov says the extra charge will eat up most of the small profit he makes on every trip.
IGOR VERESOV: (Through interpreter) Everything is simple. I don't have enough to feed my family. The system takes away what we bring home.
FLINTOFF: Veresov is 49, a beefy man with a weather-beaten face. He's from Veliky Novgorod, a small city on the road between Moscow and St. Petersburg. He owns his own truck and says he hauls for local businesses, mostly consumer goods, such as paint and varnish. And, Veresov says, consumers will be the ones to bear the brunt of higher prices when he has to charge more to carry the goods. In an economy where consumers are already facing inflation of nearly 16 percent, you'd think the drivers' prediction of even higher prices would get people's attention. But economist Ekaterina Reshetova says it's not really that big a deal.
EKATERINA RESHETOVA: (Through interpreter) Experts like to give an example. If you add this fee to a truckload of milk traveling 100 kilometers, it will only rise the cost of a carton of milk by one kopeck.
FLINTOFF: A kopeck is a small Russian coin that's currently worth a tiny fraction of a cent. In other words, most people won't even notice it. So the truckers are having trouble getting ordinary citizens to feel their pain, and there's another reason, too. The state-run media where most Russians get their news have given the truckers' protest almost no coverage at all. The truckers have tried to get attention by blocking highways or slowing traffic, but so far, police have headed off most of their actions. The only reason they're getting attention now is that some communist lawmakers have taken up their cause.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
FLINTOFF: Speakers at this rally are using Soviet-era rhetoric, calling on workers to rise up and defend their interests against the capitalists, the so-called idle class. Sounds old-fashioned, but it has a current bite because the road-fee system is a privately run business controlled by a man named Igor Rotenberg, the son of one of President Putin's oldest friends. The truckers say there's something fishy going on, but federal prosecutors have declined to investigate. What makes this protest significant is that it's not coming from the Russian middle class or liberal intellectuals. It's coming from people who are President Clinton's working-class base. Even now, their anger isn't directed at him, and they're appealing to Putin for help. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.
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