It would be nice to see you in Edinburgh …

September 26, 2010

I am looking forward to visiting Edinburgh on Sunday 31 October, to talk about Change in Putin’s Russia at the Independent Radical Book Fair. My slot is at 3.45 pm at the Out of the Blue Drill Hall, Dalmeny Street – details here http://www.word-power.co.uk/viewEvent.php?id=2864 … and it’s part of a pretty interesting weekend – the whole schedule is here http://www.word-power.co.uk/viewEventList.php?category_id=1.

If you’re in, or anywhere near, Edinburgh, it would be nice to see you there!

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“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/


Disappearance of another Ukrainian journalist adds pathos to Gongadze anniversary

August 28, 2010

Journalists across Europe will on Thursday 16 September mark the tenth anniversary of the death of  Ukrainian internet journalist Gyorgy Gongadze – a classic example of the impunity of powerful people who instigate violence against journalists.

 (* Details of London event at the end.)

 The importance of the campaign to bring those who ordered Gongadze’s killing to justice was grimly underlined in recent weeks by the disappearance, and feared murder, of investigative reporter Vasily Klimentyev in Kharkov on 11 August.

The instigators of Gongadze’s murder were at the very top of the Ukrainian political pyramid. Former president Leonid Kuchma, current parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn and some of their cronies discussed harming him – shortly before he was kidnapped, beaten, strangled and beheaded by a gang of policemen.

The gang leader, Aleksei Pukach, is now awaiting trial, and three of his accomplices are serving prison sentences – but the instigators of the crime have never been brought to justice.

The conversations in Kuchma’s office about harming Gongadze are known to the world, because Mykola Melnychenko, a former presidential bodyguard, released tape recordings of them two months after the murder.

But the chain of command that led from Kuchma’s office to those who killed Gongadze, founder of the Ukrainska Pravda web site, has – so far – been covered up.

Former home affairs minister Yuri Kravchenko – who was apparently assigned during those conversations to have someone sort Gongadze out – died in mysterious circumstances (shot himself in the head twice, allegedly). Two other key internal affairs ministry officials who were probably involved both fell into a mysterious coma and then died.

The Ukrainian general prosecutor’s office effectively sabotaged the investigation of how Gongadze’s killing was ordered and organised. It at first denied Gongadze was missing, then mishandled evidence, and for years failed either to follow basic policing procedures or to resist political pressure to cover up for the instigators.

After the “Orange revolution” of 2004, many Ukrainians hoped the case would be solved – but it wasn’t, and “Orange” president Viktor Yushchenko pinned medals on prosecutors who obstructed the investigation.  

The disappearance nearly three weeks ago of Vasily Klimentyev, 67, editor of Novy Stil (New Style), a muckraking local paper in Kharkov, is a sober reminder of the dangers facing journalists who try to expose corruption in high places.

Klimentyev disappeared on 11 August, while preparing to publish an article about Stanislav Denisiuk, a senior tax official whose wrongdoing he had previously scrutinised. Four days later Klimentyev’s mobile phone and door keys were found and a murder case opened.

The investigation was last week transferred to the internal affairs ministry’s national detective unit, after internal affairs minister Anatoly Mogilev said that “current and former representatives of the law enforcement services” were under suspicion.

In the ten years since Gongadze’s murder, Ukrainian media have grown to operate relatively freely – particularly on the internet, where Ukrainska Pravda, the site he founded, is leader among many high-quality news sites. Even TV has a greater variety of reporting than in Russia.

But physical threats to journalists, especially those who write about state corruption, are all too common. This weekend Valery Ivanovsky, editor of the Zhitomir-based newspaper Silske Zhittya newspaper, was teargassed and stabbed.

* A delegation from the National Union of Journalists of the UK and Irelandwill go to the Ukrainian embassy at 60 Holland Park, London W11 3SJ (nearest tube Holland Park) at 11.0 am on Thursday 16 September. In previous years the delegation has been received by the ambassador. The NUJ has actively participated in the international campaign to bring the instigators of Gongadze’s murder to justice, and in supporting trade union initiatives among Ukrainian journalists, over the last ten years. For more details contact NUJ General Secretary, Jeremy Dear, at the NUJ offices.

* The International Federation of Journalists, the Gongadze Foundation, the Institute of Mass Information and the NUJ have produced four reports on the Gongadze case, which can be downloaded here: http://www.ifj.org/en/articles/joint-statement-on-ninth-anniversary-of-gyorgy-gongadze-s-death

* A conference is being held in Kyiv on 16 September on the issue of impunity for attacks on journalists, involving Article 19, the IFJ and other press freedom organisations.


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.


“To live humanly – with dignity”

July 22, 2010

Labour movement activists in Moscow believe that the strikes, meetings and demonstrations that spread through the Kuzbass coalfield in May – the most widespread in recent years – could be renewed later this year. The protest movement surged brought miners and their families into conflict with local government and the security forces as well as mine managers.

The protests were triggered by one of Russia’s worst mining accidents in recent years, at the Raspadskaya mine at Mezhdurechensk. An explosion late on 10 May killed a group of miners and left others trapped underground; a second blast caught rescue workers and miners trying to reach the trapped men. The total reported death toll was 67.

Inspectors’ reports indicated that the first explosion was caused by high concentrations of methane gas. Mine managers had turned a blind eye to workers – who rely on productivity payments to make a living wage – tampering with safety equipment. They had disabled gauges that automatically shut down the power supply to drilling equipment if gas concentrations exceed a certain level.

Safety officials have started criminal proceedings against the mine manager, Igor Volkov. But as any miner will tell you, this is a question of corporate culture. Institutional collusion is needed to neutralise safety equipment significantly. And there is a history in post-Soviet Russia’s privatised pits: in 2007, when 110 died at the Ulyanovskaya mine in western Siberia, it emerged that safety equipment had been tampered with there, too.

On 14 May, miners gathered in the town square of Mezhdurechensk – a historic meeting-place during the 1989 miners’ strike, the key event in the late Soviet revival of the Russian workers’ movement.

 Kvant, a local TV station, reported that miners arrived “in groups, whole work brigades”, with their families. In a clip posted on You Tube, the journalists promised to transmit interviews “without any censorship”. You can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGL0U3xbYiQ&feature=player_embedded One miner, surrounded by his workmates, said they were demonstrating because:

No-one from the mine management came to beg forgiveness. No-one in any official position came and said, “forgive us please, mothers, forgive us, wives [of those killed in the explosion]”. [The management] didn’t really grieve. That was all false. […] [We want] to live humanly – with dignity. It’s that simple. Everyone thinks we get huge great money. But actually people here live from one wage packet to the next. On average, without fulfilling the plan, people get 25,000 [rubles per month. The ruble/$ exchange rate is about 30:1.] If the plan is met, 30-35,000 – 40,000 is the absolute maximum. […] But it’s dirty money. To receive that 35,000, our lads – for the sake of their families, not for the sake of money – go into the mine to work and, honestly, they break safety regulations. They disable the methane gauges. Because it’s impossible to do otherwise. There is a great deal of [methane] gas. It’s constantly present. […] All the managers know perfectly well what’s going on. And they [the managers] on the surface do too.

Other interviewees said pay was cut after the 2008 financial crisis and that when miners complained, the mine manager responded: “If you don’t like it, I’ll just bring in Chinese workers who’ll work for half of what you get.”  

Overnight on 14-15 May, protesters blocked a local railway line. About 200 of them confronted the riot police (OMON) who arrived to try to move them on. The miners and their families were attacked by OMON officers with batons; stones were thrown in response and 28 arrests made.

As tension rose in the region, and labour movement activists feared an extension of repressive action, a manifesto appeared on the internet signed by the Union of Kuzbass Residents, an unknown organisation. It called for mass meetings in towns throughout the region on 22 May; urged “all parties and public organisations” to support those arrested during the railway protest; and called for mass meetings to become a regular feature of the region’s political life. The appeal is reproduced below, in the item dated 17 May.

Despite the mystery surrounding the appeal’s origin, local authorities in Kuzbass became concerned about the planned day of action. Many of them reacted nervously, arranging sports activities – and in the case of Kiselevsk, an organised potato-picking expedition – and putting security services on standby.

On 22 May, a small group of people turned out to demonstrate in Mezhdurechensk. Andrei Orlov, a miner at the Olzherasskaya-Novaya pit and activist in the Independent Miners Union, told the protestors that security guards had detained and interrogated him, and asked him to attend a forensic centre to be tested for traces of drug use. He refused and said he would only accept testing by independent doctors – an understandable stance, since a miner activist from Yakutsk, Valentin Urusov, is currently serving six years’ hard labour on trumped-up drugs charges.

In Novokuznetsk, the regional capital, a crowd of 300 gathered at the town hall, where the mayor, Valerii Smaly, had agreed to meet the protestors. An angry exchange between the crowd and officials was published on Russia’s most comprehensive site for labour and social movements, IKD.ru. Many of the speakers from the crowd focused on the issue of low wages. IKD.ru’s correspondent quoted with pathos a woman who jumped up to the microphone as the chairman tried to close the meeting and said:

Esteemed gentlemen! You have spoken many fine words hear but, listening to you, I understood that nothing will change. This city has no future. My daughter’s husband is a miner and he takes home 9000 [rubles a month]. My daughter is pregnant now. The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is to say to her that she should get a termination. She just will not be able to bring up a child on that.

In the days that followed, promises of two 7% pay rises in rapid succession were formalised and the movement subsided – for now. Activists in Moscow, who had organised solidarity demonstrations with Kuzbass, began to discuss the lessons of an upsurge that had galvanised coalfield communities in a way not seen since the mid 1990s.

Andrei Demidov of IKD.ru, addressing a press conference on 31 May, said that the conflict in Mezhdurechensk had been sharpened by “many years of pressure on the free trade unions that had been active there, and other civil initiatives that were not under the control of the local authorities. As a result, at the critical moment, the energy of social protest burst out in radical forms.” Nevertheless, organisations had been developed to express mining communities’ interests, “and that is certainly not the virtual Union of Kuzbass Residents”, Demidov said. As well as an “initiative group” formed locally during the protests, there is the local branch of the Independent Miners Union, which has 60 members at Raspadskaya – while there are 3000 in Rosugleprof, the “official” union that is integrated into management structures in a way similar to the soviet-period union from which it is descended.

Those in Moscow who followed the events believe that none of the fundamental issues – the sharp fall in living standards that followed the 2008 crisis, the productivity drive in mines and other industries that endangers safety, and Russia’s gigantic legacies of other unresolved social problems – have been resolved. Further social movements are to be expected.


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/.