Urbanna, October 29 – Russian government plans to lay off 50,000 autoworkers in Toliatti, a company town where there is little prospect that the unemployed will be able to find work, have sparked rumors that Moscow plans to introduce interior ministry troops to keep order and that at least some of the workers plan to use arms to defend their jobs.
If the interior ministry troops fire on the workers, that would fulfill the predictions of sociologist Yevgeny Gontmakher in November 2008 that the current economic crisis in Russia could ultimately lead to a repetition of clashes in company towns like the one between Soviet militiamen and workers in Novocherkassk in 1962.
But if Russians workers fire back, that would not only likely result in more bloodshed than did Novocherkassk but almost certainly represent the crossing of a Russian Rubicon with unpredictable consequences for the future of the Russian labor movement, Russian opposition groups, and the entire Russian political system.
On Tuesday, in an article in “Nasha Versiya,” Ruslan Gorevoy reported that Toliatti workers now threatened with layoffs plan massive protests,” and the journalist says that “rumors are flying that in AutoCity several special MVD detachments have been sent in” to prevent the workers from damaging property (versia.ru/articles/2009/oct/26/razborki_na_zavode_avtovaz).
Gorevoy was able to establish that Avtovaz, facing falling orders and mounting debt, plans mass layoffs, that the trade unions have threatened to protest in the streets if they happen, and that there are approximately 2,000 MVD troops nearby, apparently called in by company officials as a precautionary measure or as a show of force.
But Interior Ministry officials “would not comment on the rumors that special forces units are being sent to AutoCity from Perm, Samara, and the Moscow region,” Gorevoy said. Moreover, Petr Zolotaryev, leader of the Unity Trade Union, said he knew nothing about such units in Samara oblast (http://www.kasparov.ru/material.php?id=4AE6AAA100806).
But as disturbing as those rumors are, others which suggest that workers there expect “street battles” if the MVD units fire and that “they intend to present an organized resistance to the special forces” because the workers “have arms,” being from a city which for “a long time was one of the bandit capitals of Russia.”
Gorevoy was able to confirm from what he called “reliable sources” that “the 700,000 residents” of Toliatti currently have “tens of thousands of firearms.” Few if any of these “large home arsenals” are registered, being the result either of criminal activity or the leakage of weapons on both sides during the Chechen war.
And he was also able to identify several additional reasons beyond the layoffs that could trigger a clash: Few workers trust the trade unions, most residents believe that the workers’ jobs would not be at risk if company officials were not stealing, and many people are angry at the government for not bailing their company out as Vladimir Putin did in Pikalevo.
For a government to decide to shoot at a crowd of its own people and even more for a group of workers to decide that they have no better option than to shoot back require that each side pass over a high threshold. And it is entirely possible that this set of threats and counter-threats will lead each side to back away lest things get out of control.
But over the next two weeks, at the end of which the authorities are to announce their plans for layoffs and an audit of the firm released, the tensions in Toliatti are sufficiently high that there is a risk that either a frightened MVD officer or an angry worker could fire and thereby trigger a conflagration first in Toliatti and then quite possibly in other Russian cities as well.