Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Most Russians Back Pikalevo Residents But May Not Follow Their Example

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 30 – Three out of four Russians say they support the actions by Pikalevo residents, including blocking a highway, intended to force the firms to pay them what they were owed; but a majority believe that the situation was resolved only by Vladimir Putin’s personal intervention, and fewer than one in five are prepared to take part in similar protests.
Those figures have convinced some Moscow analysts that Pikalevo will not cast a large shadow on Russia’s future, but because there are more than 400 such company towns there and because the economic situation in many is increasingly bleak, precisely that combination could prove explosive if the powers that be are not able everywhere and always to intervene.
Today, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, a Moscow survey agency with close ties to the Russian government released the results of a June 20-21 poll on Russian public attitudes on the causes, course and consequences of the Pikalevo events at the end of May and the beginning of June (wciom.ru/novosti/press-vypuski/press-vypusk/single/12055.html).
The five most important of the poll results are the following. First, the VTsIOM survey found that all the media and elite attention to the Pikalevo protests, including blocking a federal highway and attracting a visit by Prime Minister Putin, only 41 percent of the sample said they had heard of the events there. Fifty-eight percent said “they knew nothing” about them.
Second, 20 percent of those who were aware of the situation said that the “main guilty parties” in the case of Pikalevo were the city administrators, while 20 percent held the owners most to blame. Thirteen percent said the government was at fault, but only one percent considered Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev to blame.
Third, 75 percent of those questioned said that the actions of the residents of Pikalevo were justified, with 93 percent saying that they viewed the Pikalevites as “victims of the existing situation” and thus approved their actions. Only three percent said that the residents should not have acted as they did.
Fourth, 51 percent of those polled since that the situation could not have been solved except for the intervention of Putin. And fifth, 92 percent said that the only thing that set the Pikalevo situation apart from many other company towns was the “decisiveness of the local residents who thus attracted the attention of the powers that be.
VTsIOM’s Valery Fedorov argued the poll showed that “the Pikalevo effect” has not been as great as many feared: “The willingness of Russians to protest is low, but people are prepared to applaud those who do and achieve something since they consider that people must defend their rights (www.vedomosti.ru/newspaper/article.shtml?2009/06/30/202595).
Aleksey Grazhdankin, deputy head of the Levada Center polling agency agreed. His firm’s polls, he told “Vedomosti,” show that “only 19 percent of Russians are prepared to take part in protests,” down from 30 percent in the 1990s. But at the same time, he noted that 25 percent of Russians say they “expect” protests in their city or region.
These figures are undoubtedly accurate, but other Moscow observers draw a different set of conclusions from them. Oleg Shein, a Duma deputy who is also a labor union leader, told the Moscow paper that “people will be ready to defend their rights” if they are violated and if the authorities lack the funds to resolve the situation by paying up.
He pointed to the echo of Pikalevo at the other end of the country at the Russian Wolfram factory in the Far East. And in “Vlast’” yesterday, Aleksandr Kukolevsky detailed a number of similar protests under what for many is certain to be a disturbing title: “The Road is the Main Weapon of the Proletariat” (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1189627).
In the Altay kray, the journalist noted , workers who had threatened to block a highway during Putin’s June 19th visit there were dissuaded from taking that dramatic step when they were paid what they were owed – some 67 million rubles (2.2 million US dollars) 24 hours before.
Meanwhile, in other places – Leninsk-Kuznetsky in Kemerovo oblast on June 22, in Buryatia on the same day, and in Bogdanovich in Sverdlovsk oblast the following one – there were protests, which the authorities variously tried to parry by using their police powers and finding resources to meet the demands of the workers.
Consequently, despite the conclusion offered by VTsIOM’s director, it may very well be that Pikalevo will have a large impact, either because Russian workers will see that such protests can win them a lot or, more seriously, because they may find that the only people they believe can address their problems – the powers that be in Moscow – lack the resources or will to do so.

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