Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Window on Eurasia: More Pikalevo-Type Protests Ahead in Russia, Gontmakher Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 26 – Protests like those which took place in Pikalevo last spring are going to spread to other Russian company towns in the coming weeks as people return from time off during the summer, confront difficulties in finding work, and have to deal with shortages, according to Yevgeny Gontmakher, the scholar who first called attention to this phenomenon.
And those protests, the product of Russia’s difficulties in dealing with the continuing economic crisis, may be larger and more insistent because Russia this year is now projected to have a smaller harvest than last, a trend that could lead to sharply higher prices or food shortages in some parts of the country.
In an interview he gave to “Svobodnaya pressa,” Gontmakher, a senior scholar at the Moscow Institute of Contemporary Development, said that those who argue that there is no company town problem now because there have not yet been any serious repetitions of Pikalevo-type conflict this year are wrong (
On the one hand, the economist pointed out, “2009 has not yet ended.” Indeed, “the worst part of the year is just ahead, because summer is [typically] a quiet time and the fall, as everyone, including Putin and Medvedev, already understands will be very difficult for a variety of reasons,” both economic and social.
And on the other, Gontmakher suggested, while there has been no repetition of Pikalevo in all details, there have been many conflicts which have shared one or more of the characteristics which he outlined when he wrote his article on “Novocherkassk-2009” at the end of last year.
In the Far East, for example, where automobile owners revolted over increases in import duties on foreign cars, the local militia, as Gontmakher had predicted, “did not want to disperse the residents” because in “a small down, where everyone knows everyone else, [where] many in fact are relatives,” the militia felt constrained. As a result, Moscow sent in outsiders.
Indeed, he said, the head of the local militia trade union said that those outside militiamen were told by the local officers: “Lads, we are allowing you here this time,” but if you come again, the outsiders were told, the militia in Vladivostok will do whatever is necessary to make sure that “your plane does not land” and that you do not move against our fellow residents.
Gontmakher pointed to another reason that he thinks his predictions are likely to come true: even the government has created a commission to deal with this problem, to study what it can do about “mono-cities,” a term few officials had paid much attention to in the past but one they now use all the time.
Meanwhile, commentator Mikhail Delyagin provides yet another set of reasons for thinking that the problems of company towns may be more serious in the coming months: the likelihood that Russia will have a poorer harvest than last year and monopolies among suppliers that will create shortages and drive prices up (
Behind the smaller harvest is not just a drought, about which the Russian government could do little or nothing, but also financing problems in agriculture that mean agribusiness has less money for purchasing and repairing machinery needed to bring in and process the harvest, problems for which Moscow bears serious responsibility, Delyagin says.
And he points out that the recent increase in the availability of meat reflects these problems rather than suggests they have been overcome: Producers are slaughtering animals they cannot afford to keep at record rates, a trend that at the very least is not sustainable even if the Russian government claims otherwise.
But the most serious problem in the food sector, the director of the Moscow Institute of the Problems of Globalization argues, involves the rise of monopolies in the distribution network. Because of that, it now happens that government support nominally intended for producers “in fact finances speculators among the monopolies, who withhold production.”
Because Moscow did not want to support the producers themselves during its “fat” years of high oil prices, either because of a fear of offending the Europeans or because of an unquestioned faith “in the dogmas of liberal fundamentalism,” the Russian government now faces a serious problem.
And because the government has been slow to provide financial support to “regions not connected with the pumping of oil,” Moscow faces problems in company towns like “Togliatti, Nizhniy Tagil, and Tutayev,” even if the powers that be think they can ride out this crisis as they have before.
“But the present drought is capable of sharply worsening the financial situation of the relatively well-off regions and create in them a catastrophic need for government support,” something Delyagin says poor planning in the past means that the central authorities simply won’t be able “to take note of in time.”
Consequently, Delyagin, just like Gontmakher, sees the problem of company towns in the Russian Federation getting worse, with more Pikalevos, more Vladivostoks, and possibly even a Novocherkassk occurring before the end of this calendar year or at the beginning of next, developments that will only add to Moscow’s problems.

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