Thursday, October 15, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Oligarchs Said Organizing Strikes at Their Own Firms to Extract Money from Moscow

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 15 – Russia’s one-company town problem has taken on a new dimension: The oligarchs who own firms in these places are covertly organizing strikes in order to extract money from a central Russian government that is increasingly fearful that such protests could spread and threaten its control, according to an independent journalist in the Urals.
A new “fashion” has appeared in Russia, Mikhail Vyugin says in an article carried by the portal: “If you organize a protest action, you can get money from the federal budget” because of the government’s fears of “people going out into the streets” to take part in broader protests against itself (
Vyugin reports that “several brigades of political technologists who had been working according to these scheme in other regions of the Russian Federation have returned to Ekaterinburg and reported that Moscow is “ready whatever is necessary” in these cases and will “close its eyes to the most improbable tricks.”
These experts, he continues, “are in shock: no sanctions are being applied to the provocateurs and the technique is becoming ever more popular.” Indeed, they say, representatives of the oligarchs are “preparing to repeat it in Sverdlovsk oblast,” one of the regions where single company towns are especially numerous.
According to the political technologists with whom Vyugin spoke, representatives of the oligarchs stimulate labor unrest, “no one calls the workers to peace,” and any talks that do take place are “only for show,” because the real force behind the strikes and protests are the owners who want to extract money from Moscow.
One technologist said that these owners have an obvious interest in such tensions: “At the same time with the protest actions, the owner turns to the government with a request to allocate funds to eliminate debts or simply to cover current account short falls. He can also ask for other concessions: reductions in taxes and fees or special conditions for work with state monopolies.”
The technologist speaking on condition of anonymity and refusing to identify the oligarchs and owners for whom he and the others had worked for or were working with now added that such schemes have secured “several tens of billions of rubles of financial help from the government of Vladimir Putin.”
Vyugin said that among those suspected of doing this, however, were the owners of Avtovaz, “who have constantly frightened the government with their plans to reduce employment and then received new money” and also Uralkhim, which is owned by Dmitry Mazepin.
Yevgeny Minchenko, a Ekaterinburg political scientist, said that he had “encountered such cases in the regions,” and although there is no absolute proof, there is enough evidence of the phenomenon Vyugin is describing to support “very strong suspicions” that owners are using protest actions in this way.
The political scientist said that he “considers this technology extremely harmful because it is easily copied and if massively used will lead to a situation in the country which will go out of control.” But because it has worked so well for so many, he suggested, it seems likely to spread, unless Moscow changes course.
If the central government decides to crack down on such activities, he added, then no owner or oligarch will be brave enough to try them again. But if Moscow suddenly changes course, then the protests and strikes the oligarchs have organized could grow and become the kind of political challenge the powers that be fear.
There are, of course, two other explanations for the appearance of this article about a phenomenon that undoubtedly does exist. On the one hand, it may set the stage for just such a shift in central policy. And on the other, and extending that, the information behind the article may be yet another aspect of political struggles not in the regions but in Moscow itself.

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