MOSCOW (AP) — In a hurried attempt to placate protesting truck drivers, the Russian parliament on Friday eased fines under a new road bill and indicated that it was ready to make further concessions.
Truck drivers, many of whom own and operate their own vehicles, have been protesting the new road toll for long-distance haulers as too high. They also say the toll collection system is poorly planned and barely usable, and voice doubt that the toll money would go to maintain Russia's roads as promised.
The truckers' action, the most visible social protest in years, has shaken Russia's dormant political landscape and cast a challenge to the Kremlin.
The State Duma voted overwhelmingly on Friday to lower the fines for failure to pay a new road toll from 450,000 rubles ($6,670) to 5,000-10,000 rubles ($75- $150).
The bill still has to go to the upper house of parliament and get President Vladimir Putin's signature, steps that are seen as pure formalities.
Lawmakers at a meeting with truck drivers earlier on Friday indicated they would be ready to make further concessions.
Yevgeny Moskvichyov, chairman of the Duma's transportation committee, told reporters that he hopes that the parliament will vote next year to make the truck drivers exempt from a transportation tax that all motorists in Russia pay.
All of the road tax money is supposed to be collected by a private company and then transferred to Russia's Federal Highway Fund. The transport company is partially owned by Igor Rotenberg, son of a childhood friend of President Vladimir Putin.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov this week denied suggestions that family connections have helped Igor Rotenberg to land the lucrative deal under which the company is guaranteed 10 billion rubles ($147 million) a year for operating the system.
Asked to comment on the protest Friday, Peskov pointed at the Duma's vote and voiced hope that protesters will reach an understanding with officials in charge of the nation's transport system.
In an apparent effort to ward off a planned trucker protest, police on Friday afternoon blocked six lanes of traffic on Moscow's beltway as hundreds of trucks were driving from across Russia to Moscow to protest.