By Paul Goble
The economic crisis and technogenic failures like the Raspadskaya mine disaster are combining to make “spontaneous outbursts of public anger” an ever more prominent feature of Russian life, a trend the regime appears powerless to reverse but one that may not have serious political consequences unless this anger is shaped by new leaders.
According to an editorial offered by the labor movement portal, Rabkor.ru, yesterday, “the powers that be have been very much afraid of a social explosion” and have taken steps, especially “in major cities” where economic decline has hit large numbers of workers especially hard (www.rabkor.ru/editorial/6946.html).
But, the site points out, Russia’s “misfortune came from where it was not expected,” as a result of a deadly methane explosion in the Raspadskaya Mine in Mezhdurechensk as the rest of the country was celebrating, often in an “expensive and pompous” manner, the 65th anniversary of Victory Day.
“That an outburst of social protest should take place precisely in a mining region should have been predictable given the experience of 1989,” when a miners’ strike “paralyzed the goal industry of the USSR” and “intensified the crisis of the Soviet system.” But there were three reasons why the Russian powers that be thought they were safe in this sector.
First, because the economy is so bad, workers could hardly threaten to strike or quit. If they did, they would be unlikely to find other work and would suffer accordingly. Second, the mines are now owned by private interests rather than the state, allowing officials to believe that any economic protest would not touch them.
And third, as Rabkor.ru laments, the miners’ movement is much weaker than it was. The independent miners’ union has lost “a significant portion of its members and branches.” Mines have been closed, and “failed labor actions have demoralized the workers.” Worse, the union leaders have spent more time fighting among themselves than fighting for the workers.
“In such circumstances,” the editorial continues, “it is completely understandable that neither the government, nor the employers, nor the local powers that be, nor possibly even the miners themselves expected that here could take place something like that which occurred in Mezhdurechensk” last Friday and Saturday.
But the response of the workers to the accident at the Raspadskaya Mine “demonstrated that the patience of people is not unlimited,” especially at a time when mine owners pay themselves first and cut back on safety in order to boost their profits and when this is very much on public view.
Reflecting their traditional understanding, the miners turned first not to the owners but to government officials, who responded over and over again that “all demand must be addressed not to them but to the owners of the mines.” However, as the miners have learned, “the powers that be and the entrepreneurs cooperate closely,” making a demand on one a demand to the other.
According to the Rabkor.ru editors, “the conflict in Mezhdurechensk could have been extinguished by the traditional combination of repressions and concessions. But the events that have taken place testify that despite all the efforts of the government and all the loud declarations about victory over the economic recession, the social crisis in the country is growing.”
(Rabkor.ru may be more confident than the powers that be could win a crackdown than those powers are. At Mezhdurechensk as in Vladivostok earlier, the local OMON refused to disperse the workers, and regional officials had to call in militia units from other regions, a pattern that must give Moscow pause (www.apn-spb.ru/news/comments7301.htm#comments).
Under the circumstances, “no one can predict where and why the next outburst of popular unhappiness will occur,” Rabkor.ru says. But one thing is clear: such outbursts will “shape the changes in the social life of the country in the immediate future,” even if the workers’ lack of organization means that these outbursts may not have the transforming impact they could.
In an analysis following this editorial, Anna Ochkina, who has been researching attitudes among Russian workers since the end of the Soviet period, says that one of the biggest problems of such demonstrations is that workers have not yet moved from being against something to being for something (www.rabkor.ru/analysis/6948.html).
The “positive content” of these actions “was and remains significantly less specific and unconnected with a precise model of a desired society or even a constructive model of social policy,” she observes. As a result, protests do not yet either reflect or promote “consistent” and “specific” convictions allowing participants in one to link up with others.
Nonetheless, Ochkina argues, Russians “are learning to defend their interests, to try different methods [for doing so], and are beginning to understand the benefits from unity.” That may not bear fruit immediately, but such a growth in understanding is perhaps the only way that workers in Russia can create the conditions for determining their own future and that of Russia.