This blog is dormant. Long live this blog!

April 9, 2011

UPDATE, February 2014. I visited Moscow last week for the first time in nearly six years, after – apparently – the decision to deny me entry (see below) was reversed. It was good to be back, and I hope I’ll be able to visit again. I won’t be writing on this blog, for now, though … that was too long a break in the rhythm. The rest of this post, written in April 2011, explains why there was a long gap. [end of update]

This blog was always “occasional”, as it says in the heading – and now it’s going dormant. The reason is that I can not visit Russia … and, try as I do to follow its life from a distance, that gets harder as time passes.

I was denied entry to Russia three years ago by the security services, and a few weeks ago, despite having a gold-plated invitation from the “right” sort of people, had a visa application rejected because I am “forbidden to enter Russia” (the embassy’s words). I’m continuing to try to get this decision reversed, but that might take a while.

In June 2008, I arrived at Domodedovo airport with a multi-entry visa and was sent straight back to London by the migration service (which answers to the security service, the FSB). The Russian consul in London told me I had been denied entry under a catch-all clause of the law governing who comes and goes that refers to “national security”, “the defence capability of the state”, etc. My guess is that my problem stems from meeting the “wrong” people (who were themselves under surveillance), rather than writing the “wrong” things, although I don’t know. (Pretty much all there is to say about this was said at the time by the Campaign for the Protection of Journalists, who wrote a letter to the president here http://cpj.org/2008/09/cpj-asks-russia-to-allow-journalists-entry.php).

Since then, I have continued, in my work as a researcher and journalist, to follow the Russian economy (and you can see the sort of thing I write on http://www.simonpirani.com or the web site of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies). But keeping in touch with Russian events in a broader sense is tough. And I’m not sure I can add anything valuable for you, dear reader. If you want to know what’s going on, try some of the links on the right hand side. If you’re wondering how I am, try my other sites. This one will stay live – there’s a fair bit of stuff accumulated on it – but from now on I’ll add to it only rarely, or when my luck changes. Thanks for visiting, anyway!


Campaigners sound alarm over imprisoned miner

March 23, 2011

[Translation of an article published on IKD.ru on 15 March.]

In a Yakutia prison camp, the imprisoned trade union leader Valentin Urusov was beaten up, to make him cancel a meeting with journalists.

Valentin Urusov, the convicted trade union activist serving a six-year sentence in no. 3 prison camp at Verkhniy Bestyakh, has been put under pressure because of a planned meeting with journalists from NTV television company.

Maksim Mestnikov, the head of the Sotsprof trade union in Yakutia, told the Institute of Collective Action (IKD) information agency that the NTV journalists were preparing a programme about trade union activists who faced harassment due to their campaigning activity. The meeting with Urusov had been planned as part of the project.

In the spring and summer of 2008, Urusov, having set up a trade union at the Aikhalo-Udachninsky ore enrichment combine, which is part of the [diamond mining] giant Alrosa, organised a series of protests. In September of that year he was arrested, allegedly for possession of drugs, and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. A broad campaign began in support of Urusov, and demonstrations expressing support for him were held across Russia and in other countries.

The director of corrective prison camp no. 3, Yevgeny Koada, had previously agreed that trade union representatives would meet with Valentin once every three months during his sentence, in the first place to check up on the state of his health, Mestnikov said. “The prison authorities always came to an agreement with us. The last time we saw him was in December last year.”

Mestnikov explained that a request had been made for Urusov to meet the NTV journalists in a letter to Aleksandr Reimer, head of the Federal Service for Corrective Punishments of Russia (FSIN). By way of an answer, a letter arrived, signed by Valentin Urusov, in which he refused the request for a meeting.

In Mestnikov’s view, the letter was signed under compulsion. “The prison authorities in Yakutia make widespread use of trusties and narks. The trusties were given the task of beating up Urusov so that he would sign the letter refusing the request to meet the TV journalists”, Mestnikov stated.

The next meeting between Urusov and his trade union colleagues was due to take place on Monday 21 March, and Mestnikov said that the it might be postponed on one pretext or another, so that the visitors would not see the physical evidence of the pressure put on Urusov. [Up to today, 23 March, no further report has been published by IKD. As soon as one appears, it will be posted here. Translator.]

It is easy to guess why the prison authorities might be concerned about Urusov meeting journalists. Either the management of the prison camp, or the FSIN, may be worried that the truth about prisoners’ conditions will get too much public attention. It is also entirely possible that the pressure to prevent a meeting between Urusov and journalists has come from his former employers at Alrosa. It is worth recalling that Valentin Urusov has several times said that “the company” is keeping an eye on him, even during imprisonment, and that “it is by no means certain that they will allow him to be freed alive”.

The renewed interest in Urusov’s case from journalists has coincided with a new bout of campaigning in his defence. In February 2011 in Moscow demonstrations were held demanding his release, to coincide with the submission of a supervisory review by his lawyers.

Note. International supporters of Valentin Urusov are asked to follow the example of the National Union of Mineworkers in the UK, and many others, who have written to President Dmitry Medvedev at the Kremlin, demanding that the case be reviewed and Valentin Urusov be released.

Please copy and paste this information wherever you can!


How they deal with protest: baseball bats

November 8, 2010

People who speak out against the road project at Khimki, north-west of Moscow, which has attracted massive public opposition, stand a good chance of being savagely beaten by thugs with baseball bats.

On Thursday (4 November) Konstantin Fetisov, an activist involved in the campaign, was admitted to hospital in a “serious condition” after being set upon by thugs outside his home. See a press release by Bankwatch, an NGO that monitors project lending and other stuff in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, here  http://www.bankwatch.org/project.shtml?apc=147579-2212982—1&x=2265108&d=r

On Saturday it was the turn of the Kommersant journalist Oleg Kashin, who was left by his attackers with two broken legs, a damaged skull and multiple fractures of his jaw. He is now in hospital in an induced coma, as reported by RFE-RL here: http://www.rferl.org/content/Top_Russian_Journalist_In_Intensive_Care_Following_Attack/2212495.html

The attack has incensed Russian public opinion and the president Dmitry Medvedev has called for an urgent investigation. The police will have to improve on their poor record of tracking down journalists’ assailants to convince sceptics, though.

No-one knows exactly why Kashin was attacked, of course. His courageous reporting of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi, or of political opposition movements, could be the reason … as could his coverage of the Khimki affair. See his blog here (Russian only) http://www.kommersant.ru/blogs/blog.aspx?blogID=3.

Mikhail Beketov, the editor of Khimki’s local newspaper, Khimskaya Pravda, was the victim of a similar attack almost exactly two years ago.

There are links to the Khimki campaigners’ web site in the next post down.


Campaign to defend Khimki activists continues

October 30, 2010

This week Maxim Solopov and Alexei Gaskarov, two activists from Khimki near Moscow who have been involved in a campaign against a motorway construction project that will wreck local forest land, were released from police detention.

 That’s a short term victory, say their supporters. But a campaign in their defence continues, since they still face trial on charges of “disorderly conduct”, arising from their role in organising a day of mass civil disobedience on 28 July against the road project – which has incurred widespread local opposition.

 As their supporters point out on their website http://khimkibattle.org – which has plenty of English-language pages – there have been previous cases where victims of Russian police “justice” have been freed at one stage of legal proceedings but then hit with lengthy jail sentences. That’s exactly what happened to Valentin Urusov, the jailed miner whose campaign I have written about before, here https://spirani.wordpress.com/free-urusov/

The Khimki motorway, a toll road to link Moscow and St Petersburg, is a real piece of corporate vandalism. There are perfectly good proposals to reroute it in such a way as the impact on the forest and the local community would be reduced, and the local council does not listen.

The Khimki local authority will not be winning any prizes for defending civil rights any time soon. There’s an amazingly high rate of physical attacks on people who criticise it, such as the local newspaper editor Sergei Protazanov (killed in 2009), the journalist Mikhail Beketov (severely beaten in 2008) and the campaigner Albert Pchelintsev (severely beaten in 2009).

There’s a well-coordinated international campaign to support Gaskarov and Solopov. Get involved. http://khimkibattle.org/?p=1593&lang=en


Imposing austerity on Ukraine might not be so easy

October 18, 2010

The International Union of Food Workers reports today that workers at the Belkozin plant in Priluki, in northern Ukraine, have won a 54% wage increase, after a strike in May and a protracted negotiation. There’s a full report here: http://cms.iuf.org/?q=node%2F550

This is interesting, because right now the Ukrainian government and IMF are tiptoe-ing around the issue of how to implement an austerity package linked to the IMF’s gigantic programme of loans, put in place after the 2008 financial crisis – which hit Ukraine harder than almost any other European or former Soviet country.

I highlighted the rumblings in the official union federation, in response to the austerity programme, in a recent article in Emerging Markets newspaper:

http://www.emergingmarkets.org/Article/2684779/Search/Results/Union-threat-to-disrupt-Ukraine-IMF-deal.html?Keywords=khara

… and discussed the government’s nervousness on such issues as pension fund reform in a feature article here:

http://www.emergingmarkets.org/Article/2690747/Europe/UKRAINE-Tough-love.html

The Ukrainian workers’ movement, like that in Russia, has largely been quiescent since the mid-1990s. The burden of decades of dictatorship, the difficulties of throwing off the old union structures, the effects of industry being trashed … all have taken their toll.

But there’s no reason to think the movement will be quiescent for ever.


Socialism in the 21st Century and the Russian Revolution

October 17, 2010

This article, published in the International Socialism journal here http://www.isj.org.uk//?id=687, together with some additional notes here http://www.revolutioninretreat.com/isjreply.pdf, responds to a negative review of my book The Russian Revolution in Retreat.


“The Urgent Need To Struggle”? Don’t miss it!

September 13, 2010

 If you’re in or near London, don’t miss the exhibition, The Urgent Need To Struggle, by the radical Russian arts collective, Chto Delat (What is to be Done) at the ICA, at Carlton House Terrace, right near Buckingham Palace. It’s on until 24 October, and features films depicting protest movements such as that mounted in opposition to the construction of a giant tower in St Petersburg by Gazprom, Russia’s largest company. There are photos and copies of Chto Delat’s multi-lingual newspaper.

It’s free, but it’s not open every day. Check it out here: http://www.ica.org.uk/25668/Visual-Art/Chto-delat-What-is-to-be-done-The-Urgent-Need-to-Struggle.html

On Friday 10 September the collective did a “learning play” in the manner of Bertolt Brecht. It was rough and ready, but thought-provoking … and definitely not following fashion.

Chto Delat makes you optimistic about Russia. These are people who take radical and revolutionary ideas seriously, who think about their art in a social context … and can equally do irony, self-irony and plain slapstick. Whether or not they always hit your buttons in terms of their artistic production, they will make you think.

If you’re nowhere near London – or St Petersburg, where they are based – don’t worry, they are on the web here: http://www.chtodelat.org/

And there’s a blog, which I’ve previously described as the best source of information on anti-fascist and other movements in Russia: http://chtodelat.wordpress.com/


Poltava strike ended

August 28, 2010

The strike by iron ore miners at the Poltava enrichment plant, mentioned in the previous item, ended on 20 August, and the issues in dispute put into negotiation. It has been reported in the local media that the local government authorities are mediating between the workers and the company, Ferrexpo, which is majority-owned by Konstantin Zhevago, one of Ukraine’s richest men. I don’t have any more details yet.


Ukrainian iron ore miners seek international solidarity

August 10, 2010

Here’s an appeal, sent by the Narodna Solidarnist independent trade union, asking for messages of support and solidarity action. I support this initiative and hope readers will do the same. (You can download the appeal here solidarityferrexpo as a document, and send it to others.)

A major dispute is underway between mineworkers in Poltava, West Ukraine, and Ferrexpo Plc, a major player on the global market mainly engaged in mining of iron ore.  All three shifts in the open cast in the town of Komsomolsk, of more than 300 workers each are now involved in industrial action. Some railway locomotive drivers and workers on the iron ore concentrating factory have joined in solidarity. 

The action started on the 1st of August at 10 AM when the workers at the ore-dressing open cast pit started at first with a go-slow and work-to-rule.   The action began when haul trucks drivers on their way down to the 305 meter deep quarry reduce speed of the vehicles from normal 40-45 km/h to the more safe 10-15 km/h.  Excavator and bulldozer operators, as well as drilling technicians then joined the action in solidarity.   Within 24 hours of the workers action total rock production had fallen by less than 60% of normal volume.  This impact of the workers resistance is continuing.

 The cause of the dispute was a recent re-evaluation of workplaces which led to the opencast mine workers being moved from the ‘1st list’ (which implies heavy-load conditions) to the ‘2nd list’.   This means abolition of a number of benefits:

•           The retirement age will be lifted from 50 to 55 years;

•           required working life will be increased from 20 to 25 years;

•           required length of service at heavy-load workplaces – from 10 to 12.6;

•           10 days will be cut from annual holiday entitlement

Evaluation is done every 5 years; after the previous one, workers kept their ‘1st list’. Since then their trucks became older, while the mine grew even deeper. Despite the fact that the certification of job hazard categories is in contravention of Ukrainian law all legal means to contest it led to protracted and unresolved cases in the courts.

 Over the last year the management has used lies and blackmail to increase production rates; however each time rates were raised at the end of the month the workers were left without their deserved bonuses. To fulfill quotas, truck drivers routinely have to transgress the legal speed limit.  Until recently, the highest speed has been 25-32 km/h (depending on the make of vehicle), while truck drivers have to drive at 40-45 km/h. 

The company still considered production was growing too slowly.  The company used this to deny workers their bonuses. The bonus in question could reach 1000 UAH which is a significant proportion of the average wage (4500 UAH). Meanwhile, during last 2 years workers’ incomes have dropped almost fourfold due to inflation and currency devaluation.

Working hours have also been increased from 8 to 12 per day. Also, drivers of heavy haulers (90-136 tons Belaz, Caterpillar and Komatsu mining trucks) are now being officially registered simply as ‘drivers’.

In response to this intolerable situation the industrial action is continuing; judging from the results of the first week, the management isn’t eager to look for constructive solutions. With their every step, the factory management has sought to escalate the dispute.

After workers had announced the beginning of their action in the media, the Ferrexpo company press department has launched a disinformation campaign trying to refute and misrepresent the workers action.    After video of interviews with workers of the mine had been shown, the press began to side with the workers.  In response the company has adopted a new tactic of seeking to enter into negotiations, whilst launching a new press campaign in order to assure the Ukrainian and foreign media that there is no threat of a full stoppage of production at the mine, and that the action doesn’t affect the enterprise’s revenues.

Meanwhile, at a meeting with the region’s deputy governor, workers were invited to stop the industrial action, and a new commission for evaluation would be instituted. Workers, fearing deception, continued their action, and the next day, 4th of August, the management issued order #1800 by which it has unilaterally scrapped a number of safety rules for drivers of heavy haulers.   Specifically, they excluded the rule which forbade overtaking and included the rule which sets minimal speed limit.   Overtaking and overruns are the two most frequent reasons of wrecks in the quarry.

The independent trade union ‘People’s Solidarity’ has written collective letters to the public prosecutor’s office and to the Ombudsman. The management also appealed to the local authorities, and activists received summons to the local public prosecutor’s office. It seems like authorities act as employer agents to intimidate workers. One of the workers’ leaders was fired. Some workers were suspended from work. Repressions against workers are growing.

Now employer has hired 70 scab drivers from another city and put them up in a hotel in Komsomolsk under the guard of private detectives.   Every day armed with the Kalashnikov machine-guns private guards’ convoy scabs to the quarry and back to the hotel giving no possibility even to speak to them. (It should be noticed that machine-gun firearms are officially prohibited for private guards in Ukraine.)  At the moment strikebreakers have not succeeded in increasing production because they do not find it so easy to drive the heavy mining trucks.   It’s clear that it would be impossible to increase output without grave danger for the life of workers. But it looks like the employer does not care about possible fatalities.

In spite of this the strikers are resolute; they are doing their utmost to maintain their action in the face of the intimidation and strike breaking by Ferrexpo Plc.   The management, having no desire to agree to the workers demands, pays for publications in the international media on a daily basis, assuring readers of colossal revenue growth. Such boasting is particularly cynical, since everyone knows that this revenue is obtained by the super-exploiting of the workers at the enterprise.

The industrial action will last until full satisfaction of the workers’ demands, which are as follows:

•           An increase of wages by at least 50%;

•           Lowering daily and monthly output quotas to fit the safety requirements and actual human abilities;

•           Restitution of the ‘1st list of hazard’ and relevant social and pension benefits to all workers of the mine.

This action is clearly provoked by the employer’s impudent unwillingness to meaningfully negotiate with the workers.   Ferrexpo Poltava Mining CEO Viktor Lotous said to workers that they are “clowns” and advised one driver to “change his wife” if he can’t provide for the family.

Nearly 1000 workers are involved in the action and are losing now approximately 40% of salary due to the underfulfilment of output norms.

The Poltava miners need international solidarity to force Ferrexpo to stop repression, negotiate seriously and secure the workers just demands.

Send messages of solidarity to:

‘Narodna solidarnist’ trade union

E-mail: ccc@narsolidarnist.org.ua

Telephone:  +380 44 2291167. Fax: +380 44 5298901;

 www.narsolidarnist.org.ua – (note. there’s information on this and other workers’ actions on that site in Ukrainian.)

Organise protests at Ferrexpo Plc:

Ferrexpo plc, Bahnhofstrasse 13, CH-6340 Baar, Switzerland. Telephone: +41 41 769 3660

2 – 4 King Street, London SW1Y 6QL. Telephone: +44 207 389 8300

 Ferrexpo Poltava Mining JSC (Poltavskij GZK VAT)

16 Stroiteley Street, Komsomolsk 39802, Poltava Region, Ukraine

E-mail: pgok@ferroexpo.poltava.ua. Telephone: +38 (05348) 21670

Please send information about protest actions and copies of protest letters to the ‘Narodna solidarnist’ trade union on e-mail  ccc@narsolidarnist.org.ua.


How they framed up an activist

July 21, 2010

Prosecutors and the courts in Yakutia in eastern Siberia ran roughshod over legal procedures in order to jail Valentin Urusov, a miner who had dared to organise his workmates at the Alrosa diamond mining company into an independent trade union.

The details are set out in a new article here: SL55-Urusov published in the Socialist Lawyer. More information about the campaign via this page here https://spirani.wordpress.com/free-urusov/.