Vienna, July 10 – The Russian Federation today moved another step closer toward the kind of violent confrontation between angry workers and the country’s armed forces that Moscow sociologist Yevgeny Gontmakher warned about in his November 2008 article, “Novocherkassk – 2009” (www.vedomosti.ru/newspaper/article.shtml?2008/11/06/167542).
Workers from five plants in the Altay Republic blocked a highway between Novosibirsk and Mongolia in the hopes of attracting attention to their economic plight and possibly a visit by a senior official like the much-publicized one Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made to Pikalevo last month after workers there took a similar step.
But instead of that reaction, the authorities this time sent heavily armed OMON forces who pushed the workers off the highway and detained those the militia believed were behind the action on administrative charges. However, if as seems likely, those detained cannot pay the fines, they will find themselves under genuine arrest (www.apn-spb.ru/news/article5778.htm).
While the complaints of the workers in the Altay case exactly parallel those in Pikalevo – unpaid back wages, cuts in salaries, and a bleak and uncertain future – one aspect of today’s demonstration must be especially disturbing not only for officials in that distant region but also for the central government.
The picketing there was organized by workers at one factory, but employees at four other plants joined them, an indication of both organization and worker solidarity that, if replicated in one or more of the other 450 plus company towns, could lead the Russian authorities to feel compelled, as their Soviet predecessors did in Novocherkassk in 1962, to use military force.
The Altay workers first blocked the highway on July 2. At that time, OMON forces appeared but took no action. But after that, the organizers decided to stage today’s protest and to attract more workers from the various factories to take part, perhaps in the hopes that a mass demonstration would stay the hand of the militia (svpressa.ru/issue/news.php?id=c).
Before they were dispersed this morning, the demonstrators adopted an appeal to the chairman of the Altay Republic parliament, demanding that he convene that body on an extraordinary basis in order to hear and address their grievances and those of workers in other parts of the republic.
The danger that such protests will spread and that the militia may have a difficult time countering them is very much on the minds of some in the Russian interior ministry. Mikhail Il’in, head of the MVD’s Special Center E for St. Petersburg, said today that he and his colleagues “do not exclude the possibility” that the unions could “retain control” of the situation.
If the normally docile unions are unable to keep order, the MVD officer said, then “extremists could appear in their place,” an implicit warning that the interior ministry would view future worker protests as “extremist” and thus requiring officials to crush them (www.echomsk.spb.ru/content/store/default/root_site/shmode/2/ids/438/ida/88214/idt/news.html).
(Il’in made another unrelated but equally chilling comment: He said the militia officers are actively working to identify “potential extremists” among school children, noting that the MVD has already put 25,000 pupils on its “extremist” list in the Northwest Federal District alone but not at least in this context saying what he and the MVD understand by that term.)
In reporting on today’s events in the Altay Republic, the APN-SPB.ru portal concluded with the following words: “A trend which presents real dangers to the Kremlin is gathering force: Already in several regions people have attempted to protest the way the workers in Pikalevo did. Putin can’t go everywhere, but the use of force will only harden the population.”
“In this way,” the portal report said, “the Kremlin is driving itself into a trap” of its own making and setting the stage for even more dangerous confrontations in the weeks and months ahead. (www.apn-spb.ru/news/article5778.htm).