Monday, November 1, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russians have More Reasons than Ever for Public Protests, Experts Say

Paul Goble

Staunton, November 1 – The likelihood that Russians will engage in public protests in the coming months is increasing, experts in that country say, given the range of social and economic problems people there are experiencing, the intensification of many of these problems in particular places, and their sense that Moscow has failed to respond adequately or even at all.
In today’s Moscow “New Times,” a survey of expert opinion provides a veritable checklist of problems that appear likely to trigger protests in one place or another in the coming months and thus confront the Russian powers that be with a new set of problems in the run-up to the elections in 2011 and 2012 (
Karin Kleman, the director of the Institute of Social Action, said that reasons for protest are mounting and now are “above the roof,” pointing to such problems as low pay, rising prices for consumer goods, and unchecked corruption. And Aleksandr Krasnoshtan, an organizer in Arkhangelsk, noted the growing fears among the elderly about their futures.
Added to that, the editors of the weekly said, are the fears of younger people that Moscow is about to increase their retirement age, a step that polls show 79 percent of Russians are “categorically against.” Many think the powers that be want to increase the minimum retirement age so that the regime won’t have to pay pensioners: they will die before reaching it!
Finance Minister Aleksey Kudrin has proposed increasing the pension age from 55 to 60 for women and from 60 to 62 for men, arguing that at present Russia has “a low pension age.” But that Marie Antoinette-like comment has infuriated many, and Social and Health Mminsiter Tatyana Golikova was forced to deny that any plans for such a step were under discussion.
As in France and other Western countries, Russians face a problem with financing existing retirement plans, but as the demonstrations in Paris have shown, boosting the retirement age or even talking about it can push typically passive groups into the street. Consequently, many experts think that Moscow won’t do anything until after the 2012 elections.
But Russian workers have more immediate worries involving low wages and the non-payment even of those. The Association of Service Trade Union Workers, which unites some eight million people, plans to stage a strike action, given that Moscow has failed to deliver on its promises to raise salaries for its members.
Other Russian workers are even worse off. Their employers aren’t paying them. As of September 1st, Russian officials report, there was a backlog in unpaid wages of 3.35 billion rubles (100 million US dollars). These officials, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, hav suggested that this is not so bad, but others profoundly disagree.
While the situation is not so terrible compared to the 1990s or even 2007, it is much worse than it was only a few months ago, and wage arrears and the number of people who are suffering as a result has risen significantly since the start of the summer, the comparison that most people involved are likely to make.
If more workers protest with strike actions, few of the experts with whom “New Times” spoke will be surprised, but its journalists noted that “it is curious that protest attitudes are growing not only among workers but also among employers,” who are upset by rising costs and the absence of government compensation for these.
Another potential source of public protests are the company towns which have attracted attention when people have gone into the streets but have largely been ignored and typically neglected altogether after Moscow officials make promises that they have not been willing or able to follow through with.
Only one company town – Toliatti – has received as much as 80 percent of the money it was promised. Most have received far less and a large number have received nothing at all. Workers there either have to make do with part-time employment at low wages or when possible take their pensions. And as a result, conditions in many such cities are getting worse.
The Finance Minbsitry has decided to refrain from direct budgetary support of such places for the period 2011 to 2013, “New Times” reports, although it has kept aside 30 billion rubles (100 million US dollars) to pay out in the case of “extraordinary circumsatances” – a euphemism for when “people again block the roads” and thus an invitation to them to do so.
Finally, “New Times” considers a social problem that could have more immediate political consequences if those suffering from it decide to act. That involves the living conditions of military officers, both those still serving and those who have been forced to take their pensions as a result of the downsizing of the armed services.
Many in both groups have been promised housing, but what they have been given, Oleg Shvedkov, the head of the All-Russian Professional Union of Military Employees, says, is anything but satisfactory, a betrayal of regime promises, a source of anger, and quite possibly, the basis for public protests by this group as well.
The powers that be clearly expect that they will be able to prevent these groups from linking up or turning political, but the range and intensity of problems in Russian society is such that even scattered protests without a unifying leadership will present the regime with a serious problem especially in the run-up to the elections ahead.

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