Democratic Russia has little cause for optimism

In this interview originally published in Freedom in 2008, Rob Ray talks to Vadim, a Russian anarchist, about the state of the country in that year.

Submitted by Rob Ray on January 26, 2009

Rob Ray: What is the economic situation in Russia at the moment?
Vadim: The economic situation is very different now compared with the crash of the 1990s, when industrial production declined drastically. Of course, growth hasn’t come as a result of neoliberal shock therapy but rather follows from rising international oil prices. The industries which are developing now are in oil and gas production, building (many of the workers in the sector are from the other republics of the ex-‘Soviet Union’, who often have no rights or even legal status) and in metal production (mainly for export).

Some traditional industries (such as textiles and machine-building) are in decline. But it is necessary to take into account that most existing productive capacity and the whole infrastructure is very old and can be left to ruin in the near future. The other big problem is the very uneven situation in different regions. In such cities as Moscow, St.Petersburg or Nizhni Novgorod there is major development of services, in the banking industry etc. But many regions are in decline.

According to the state the general sum of backpay owed was 4.435 billion Rb. (about $171m) in May last year. Unofficially, it is higher, in particular for migrant workers (often they simply aren’t paid at all). Generally, wages in Russia remain very low. Officially, it is $400 a month on average (in Moscow it’s around $1,000), but the real situation is very different. In 2005, only 18% of population obtained more than $430 (12000 Rb.), 24% from $250 (7000 Rb.) to $430 (12000 Rb.) and 18% $180–250 (5–7,000 Rb.). In many regions and industries the situation is much worse. While workers in private services obtain good wages, in agriculture, textiles and in public service the wages are rarely greater than 5,000 Rb.

What is unemployment like?
It is not easy. For market reforms like those in Russia, an unemployment level of 20 or 30 % was expected. Actually it is (according to Western data) 7–8%. Growth is restrained due to low wages and non-payment of wages.

But the situation is not uniform here either. Unemployment in the south of Russia is on average three times more than in regions such as Moscow, St.Petersburg or Wolga, and twice much as in Siberia and the Far East. Youth unemployment is very high and people with further education also have difficulty finding work: 28% (14% in Moscow) and 11% (32% in Moscow) respectively.

But only a minority of unemployed register themselves with the state service when looking for work because it is ineffective. In the first three months, the unemployed obtain 75% of their monthly wage, in the next four months 60% and in another five months 45%. After one year, the dole is very low: from $27 to $111 a month in 2006 (it depends on the region). This is of course insufficient for life. So there are many migrations to big cities as Moscow by people independently looking for work (mainly non-skilled).

Furthermore, a lot of employment is only part-time or casual, in particular in the Far East and Wolga regions (here and there about 20% of workers); in Moscow between 10 and 20%. This sector represents around 5-6 million people.

What is the situation in education, healthcare and utility (water, power) provision?
All these sectors are in a deep crisis. In spite of a good financial situation for the country ($406.6 billion in gold reserves, of which the government’s found $117 billion for stabilization, and foreign debt amounts to $113 billion), the ruling clique continues to destroy free public services (such as education and health care) and to increase the prices for provision of water, power and other housing and communal services.

At the same time, active privatisation occurs. So the possibilities for finding free places in education, the quality of public healthcare service, drugs at reduced prices etc are falling. In education, the principles and mechanics of selection are being introduced, the number of paid student places are growing. There are many private schools and universities.

The house-and-communal-services-reform bill has brought through the privatisation of utility provision. Unfortunately, there is very little resistance against these moves. The student movement as such is absent. The main target of protests for people in the city is rather the problem of commercial re-planning and the building of elite housing.

What is trade unionism like?
All trade unions in the modern Russia are bureaucratic and anti-worker structures. The biggest organisation is the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (in Russian: FNPR) which is a new name for the old ‘Soviet’ official trade unions. The leaders of FNPR claim they have 28 million members in their unions but the majority don’t do anything and only pay dues.

It`s important that FNPR privatised the big property of old ‘Soviet’ unions, such as sanatoriums, rest homes, tourist bases, hotels, sports establishments, stadiums, homes of culture etc for its own benefit. So the FNPR is on the one hand a giant bureaucratic apparatus of paid functionaries, and on the other it’s a social infrastructure with less expensive rest and health possibilities in sanatoriums, presents for children, for people in difficult situations etc. It is often the case that there are also leading managers or members of the administration of businesses in the unions of FNPR. So it is no possible to say that the FNPR is a normal trade union in Western sense!

The unions of FNPR try normally to agree with business leaders peacefully and regard the strike as an extreme action. At the end of the 1990s, teachers and health workers (most public sector workers are in the FNPR unions) and the miners of FNPR struck, but the leadership took control: they prevented the generalization of struggle and suppressed all initiatives from below. The FNPR supported the Labour Law in 2001 which helped give business more powers to dismiss their workers and promoted precarization.

Apart from the FNPR, there are many different trade unions and federations which name themselves “free” and stress their “independency” from a “Soviet” heritage. They don`t have leading managers in top positions . But they are also vertical, bureaucratic structures, mostly with paid functionaries and they declare their fidelity to social partnership between the workers, bosses and authorities.

There are examples of self-organised workers’ resisting too - from individual sabotage action to little spontaneous strikes or “Italian” strikes. But self-organised collective actions are still rare.

What are the most powerful political strands at the moment?
The ruling political current around Putin is nationalist, strongly centralist and authoritarian in internal politics and neoliberal in economic politics. The general political objective is to reestablish Russia as a great power. The regime rests on the support of some parts of big business and on structures in the secret service and military.

The Putin group utilized aggressive Russian nationalism and spread anti-Caucasian hysteria (including the recommencement of the colonial war in Chechnya) to increase their power.
Of course, the spreading of these spirits stimulated very much the growth of pure fascist political tendencies. Gangs of boneheads terrorize migrant workers, foreign students and even children of parents coming from different republics of the ex “Soviet Union”. There are violent attacks and murders. Moreover, there were cases of big spontaneous pogroms in some cities (Kondopoga, Stavropol) against non-Russian populations.

The ruling group is too nationalistic, of course. But they are afraid of a split in Russia and try to show themselves as more “moderate” nationalism. They want to strengthen the centralisation of power by limiting State federalism, by seizing regional administration from above and revising their relationship with regional elites on more favourable terms.

As for the state’s economical and social politics, it is oligarchic and neoliberal. The ruling group reallocates property, taking control of some companies and driving back economic competitors.
This isn`t a real broadening of state control but the strengthening of existing economic forces coupled with the state power. The social measures of government are openly in favor of the rich. So Russia is one of very few countries where income tax isn’t progressive: all must pay a flat rate of 13% of income – both multi-millionaires and ordinary workers!

Are there any causes for optimism?
Optimism? I don`t think that the actual situation generates much optimism because the level of self-organised resistance is very low now. But we are pessimists in our understanding of situation, optimists in our actions. Resistance is for us not only a question of survival but also one of human dignity.

The younger generations don`t have so many illusions about private market capitalism as existed at the beginning of the 1990s. They are mainly passive now, but we hope they will overcome the social shock of that decade and will begin to react and resist. Especially when we take into consideration that economic growth in Russia, linked with the oil prices, isn`t stable and the majority of people don`t have chances in this system.