An appeal from Mezhdurechensk

May 17, 2010

On 14 May miners and their families demonstrated in the town square of Mezhdurechensk in the Kuzbass coal basin in western Siberia. The gigantic spontaneous protest followed two explosions in the Raspadskaya mine, Russia’s largest, on 8-9 May, which left 66 miners and rescue workers dead, 24 missing and 84 recovering in hospital.

A local television report said that people had arrived “marching in whole work brigades”. There were various demands – for improvements in safety standards, better pay and living standards, and for Raspadskaya’s management to show compassion to the bereaved families. One miner told TV reporters that he and his workmates wanted “to live humanly and decently”, and to be able to work underground for reasonable wages without constantly cutting corners.

The demonstration ended in clashes with riot police, and at the time of writing the situation remains tense. By far the best source of information in English on the dispute is  http://chtodelat.wordpress.com/

This translation of an appeal by a local organisation is copied from there:

Open Appeal from the Union of Inhabitants of the Kuzbass to the President and People of Russia and the Residents of the Kuzbass

While our labor makes billions of dollars for people who then spend it to build themselves palaces and villas where later our prime minister celebrates, we die by the hundreds in mines and our people destroy themselves for kopecks.

The latest events in Mezhdurechensk were the last straw for us — we can be patient no longer.

We will not be slaves, beasts of burden that do not have to be taken into account, however much certain people in charge would like to do this. We are tired of slavery and humiliation. Enough!

We appeal to President Medvedev. If, of course, he is really our president, and not someone else.

Our demands are as follows:

1. Release all those who have been arrested in Mezhdurechensk in the coming days and drop all criminal charges against them. Put an end  to the mainstream media’s insults and slander against the people of our town.

2. Raise the wage in all profitable mines in the region to three times above the minimum wage, but no lower than 45,000 rubles [per month, approximately 1200 euros]. It is low wages that lead to safety violations that result in our people dying by the hundreds.

3. End persecution of independent union activists who defend the interests of workers. Those responsible for this persecution should be severely punished.

4. Remove from Mezhdurechensk all the Interior Ministry forces that have been brought in from other towns.

5. Introduce in every town monthly mass meetings of the people with the head of the local administration, at which he would report to the people what useful things he has done for them over the past month and personally answer questions and receive petitions and appeals from citizens.

We will not be satisfied with other proposed solutions to our problems.

We await your answer, Mr. President of Russia. We expect an answer by the morning of Friday, May 21. If our demands are not met, we will then be forced to speak and act in the realm of politics, not of social demands.

Now we appeal to the people of our region.

In order to hear what the high authorities of our country have decided, we will gather on Saturday, May 22, outside the administration buildings in our Kuzbass towns at 4:00 p.m. sharp. We appeal not only to miners and their families to attend these assemblies, but also everyone who is not indifferent to the overall state of affairs in our land. Let the bureaucrats come out and respond to our demands. The only thing that will satisfy us is complete compliance with all demands.

We immediately warn [Interior] Minister Nurgaliev and Governor Tuleyev that we do not advise them to play tricks with us the way they did on the evening of May 14 in Mezhdurechensk. We know that we are often not heard and that instead of talking with us they bring in the OMON.

Therefore:

1) We appeal to all parties and public organizations in our country. We ask for your support, if only in the form of an official announcement that you support our demands and are prepared to work with other parties to help us defend ourselves any way you can. If you do not announce your official position before May 21, this will mean that you are in fact against the people. And we will make this fact known to the entire country. We see that so far a representative of only one party has tried to help us; the rest are silent. We will need informational support and legal assistance — this assistance is already required for our arrested brothers in Mezhdurechensk. We will also need other kinds of support from you, including organizational help.

2) We ask all mass media that are not sell-outs to tell the public about our demands. Send us your representatives on May 22 and publish truthful information about the events here, not the lies that are broadcast on TV.

3) Because we are in an informational blockade — our forums and groups on social websites have been blocked by the FSB, and the ones that remain open are crawling with paid mercenaries, special services employees, and policemen who pass themselves off as ordinary residents and deceive people and the country with their lies — we appeal to all the people of Russia to tell the truth to their friends and on the Internet, to talk about the events here so that the country knows what is happening and the [powers that be] won’t be able to crush us. If they crush us today, tomorrow they will crush you.

4) We appeal to the residents of our region to make lists of everyone who lives in your town — bureaucrats and policemen — who is involved in persecuting our popular self-defense. Make these lists and publish them on the Internet, post them in the streets. Your whole town should know these people by name. The families of people who are prepared to beat women, as happened in Mezhdurechensk, should be ashamed of their fathers, brothers, and sons. If you know someone who has been sent to other towns to beat our people, collect information about them as well. Make your own leaflets with the list of our demands and information about the meeting places on May 22, and post them on the streets and on houses. Tell all your acquaintances and friends about the demonstrations. Do not believe anyone who tells you that our action has been cancelled, even if this information allegedly comes from us. Do not believe any other mendacious slander of the sort that is already flooding all the corrupt media. Collect money to aid our brothers who have been arrested and give it to their relatives. Do not be taken in by the propaganda of mercenary pseudo-activists, people who have been bought off by the authorities. Make your own white armbands and put them on at the assembly on May 22. Organize your own clandestine cells of the Union of Inhabitants of the Kuzbass.

We will meet on the streets of our towns on May 22.

For Freedom and Justice!

Mezhdurechensk has a significant place in the history of the Russian labour movement. It was there that the miners’ strike movement of 1989 – a key event in the renaissance of workers’ struggles in the dying days of the Soviet Union – broke out.

An article I wrote touching on some of the mine safety issues here: http://www.emergingmarkets.org/article.asp?PositionID=search&ArticleID=2486581


Modernization is easier said than done

May 17, 2010

Russia’s political leaders talk about modernization a great deal. But shifting the economy away from dependence on oil and gas revenues is proving very difficult. I gave an overview of the dilemmas they face in a recent article here: http://www.emergingmarkets.org/article.asp?PositionID=search&ArticleID=2487832


China is displacing Russia economically in central Asia

May 17, 2010

China is not only investing billions of dollars in the oil and gas sector in central Asia, but is also ramping up its trade in consumer goods with the region. This is bound to weaken Russia’s economic influence in central Asia. I discuss some of the issues in an article here: http://www.emergingmarkets.org/article.asp?PositionID=search&ArticleID=2478245


Marina Vlady backs Urusov campaign

March 28, 2010

Marina Vlady, widow of the iconic Soviet-era Russian singer Vladimir Vysotsky and one of the great French actresses of the 1960s, has backed a campaign for the release of trade union activist Valentin Urusov from prison.

The actress, who was married to Vysotsky from 1969 until his death in 1980, has joined a group of French trade unionists, academics and politicians who have signed an appeal demanding Urusov’s immediate release. The appeal notes Urusov’s serious medical problems and says the signatories fear for his life.

Marina Vlady won the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1963 for her role in The Conjugal Bed and was the female lead in Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 ou 3 Choses Que Je Sais d’Elle (1967).

NOTE: Supporters of Valentin Urusov, including the British miners’ union, are asking people to write to the Russian president demanding his release. Updates on the campaign here (you do NOT have to be a facebook member to read it): http://www.facebook.com/group.php?v=wall&gid=172737769104

Hear about Urusov on the Solidarity Report from Radio Labour. Download the latest (28 March) mp3 from here http://www.radiolabour.net/ and go to 19 minutes and a few seconds.

Appeal in French here: http://la-sociale.viabloga.com/news/la-vie-du-syndicaliste-russe-valentin-ourousov-est-en-danger

News in Russian here: http://www.nr2.ru/275965.html

 And a better-than-average wikipedia article about Marina Vlady here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marina_Vlady


Striking Kazakh oil workers push past union to win concessions

March 28, 2010

A 19-day strike by between 6000 and 10,000 workers in Zhanaozen, in the Mangistau region of Kazakhstan, has won substantial concessions from the state-owned oil company Kazmunaigaz Exploration and Production (KMG E&P).

The strike – a large, long one by Kazakh standards – led to the scrapping of management proposals to reform the wages system, and the dismissal of the boss of Ozenmunaigaz, KME&P’s local subsidiary, who tried to imposed the changes.

According to local newspaper reports, the strikers demanded the dismissal of the trade union leader who recommended the new wages system; formed their own rank-and-file conciliation commission; and before returning to work secured promises that no rank-and-file strike leaders would be victimised by management or the police.

(Such demands, aimed against collaborationist unions and state repression, were typical of workers’ protests in Soviet times, and suggest that aspects of labour relations at KMG E&P remain unchanged since then.)

Management bullying triggered the walkout

KMG E&P estimated that the oil workers’ strike, between 1 and 19 March, cost about 2% of its daily output, or 12,000 tonnes of production. On 1 March, workers refused to leave the tents in which they are accommodated in working weeks. On 4 March the strike was made official. On 10 March it was declared illegal by the Zhanaozen city court, and 21 worker activists named as respondents.

The strikers’ first demand was that the company scrap proposals to consolidate into their basic wage premiums such as regional weighting payments and bonuses for dangerous working conditions. The regional weighting payment for Mangistau region – which has little economic activity besides oil production, extremely hot summers and cold winters, and to which most consumer goods have to be transported long distances – is 70% of the basic rate.

The strike seems in large part to have been triggered by bullying managers who told workers they had three days to sign a new contract, incorporating the changes, or be sacked.

Tabyn Ergenov, one of the strike leaders, was quoted in the Atyrau weekly newspaper Ak Zhaiyk as saying: “We were sent a notification [of the new pay system] that we had to sign within three days. It seemed to indicate that we were in for a substantial wage cut. People were furious that some workers were not even given the chance to consult with lawyers about the legality of these changes. They forced them to sign under threat of dismissal.”

Another activist, Sabit Tukenov, denied company claims that pay would increase under the new system. “No-one explained anything. They just brought this notification and tried to make people sign it. Of course many of us had questions. For example I work as a grade 5 driver; I drive a Kamaz with a trailer. For 168 working hours I would be paid, including all premiums, 135,000 tenge. Now, according to the notification, I would receive 106,000 tenge. Is our anger really so unreasonable?”

KMG E&P’s press service said that the new agreement would mean a pay increase of between 1% and 3%, that the guaranteed portion of salaries would rise from 55% to 77% of earnings and that a “9% inflation salary index” (?) had been introduced. Workers were clearly unconvinced – and , despite the proposals being introduced on the grounds that they were required by new labour legislation, management withdrew them at the end of the strike.

Workers turned on their union representative

 

The Zhanaozen strikers demanded the dismissal not only of Ozenmunaigaz’s director Baktygali Biseken and his deputy Amantaya Anshybaev, but also the president of the local oil workers’ trade union, M. Ibagarov.

Strike activist Ergenov said: “He [Ibagarov] approved changes in our pay in the name of the whole workforce of Ozenmunaigaz. Furthermore [the strikers demand] that [management] allow the formation of an independent trade union at the workplace. And we ask that Kairgeldy Kabyldin, the head of Kazmunaigaz [the national oil holding company that owns Ozenmunaigaz], and the heads of Samruk-Kazyny [the sovereign wealth fund through which the state owns Kazmunaigaz], and members of parliament, and the akim [governor] of Mangistau region, meet with us.”

(I don’t know the Kazakh oil workers’ union. But the information available suggests that it is a typical “traditional” or “official” post-Soviet union, i.e. a structure inherited from the thoroughly collaborationist organisations of Soviet times, with many of the same close links to management and top-down practices.)

The strikers’ refusal to act through the trade union caused managers additional problems, KMG E&P spokesman Daulet Zhumadil told reporters from Ak Zhaiyk. “The workers’ demands are illegal”, he said. “We will try to resolve the conflict through conciliation. But because the workers are disorganised, we can not start a reasonable dialogue. That’s why the employer has been obliged to go to court to complain of an unsanctioned strike.”

Later, KMG E&P negotiated with a conciliation commission, which seems to have been elected directly by the strikers – and announced that after “long and difficult negotiations”, agreement had been reached “on all issues”.

The strikers put ten formal demands, out of which seven – including Biseken’s dismissal, scrapping of the wages system reform, and guarantees that there would be no repression of strike leaders either by management or the security forces – were agreed by the company, Deutsche Welle’s Russian-language web site reported. The site said three demands had not been granted: full payment for strike days; the granting of separate legal status to Ozenmunaigaz; and the nationalisation of KMG E&P (which is majority-owned by the state, but also lists its shares on the London Stock Exchange and is 11% owned by China’s sovereign wealth fund).

The strike is the culmination of long-running labour disputes at Zhanaozen. Last year a smaller protest, by 30 workers, led to the award of a pay increase. The conflicts seem to exact a heavy price from KMG E&P in terms of managers: boss Biseken, sacked on 19 March as part of the settlement of this year’s strike, only took over from his predecessor Abylkhanov Daulbay in December, when he, too, was got rid of to satisfy strikers’ demands.

Fears of repression

Deutsche Welle quoted Kazakh opposition politician Vladimir Kozlov expressing fears that – despite the guarantees written into the settlement – there could be repression of the 21 conciliation commission members named by the Zhanozen court’s decision.

“Judging by the way the authorities have behaved in analogous situations before now, I would suspect that these people could be subject to harassment”, Kozlov said. “The psychology works like this: the mass of workers are back at work, and what happens afterwards will not bother them. And these 20 surnames will be remembered.”

Obviously that’s an issue for sympathisers with the workers’ movement the world over to watch.

Concerns about Chinese intentions

The reports of the strike in Ak Zhaiyk related the demands for nationalisation to workers’ concerns about Ozenmunaigaz being sold to Chinese companies. Reports about such a transfer had been aired on local TV and were strenuously denied by KMG E&P. The nature of the Chinese-Kazakh state relationship means that this particular rumour is probably baseless – but there is no doubt that Chinese involvement in the Kazakh oil industry, as both a major oil importer and an investor, is growing.

China shares a long border with Kazakhstan and its own undeveloped oil deposits in the Xinjiang-Uighur autonomous region are not far from Kazakhstan’s. As its thirst for oil rises, it makes sense to secure as much as possible from Kazakhstan, which is simply closer than other oil producers in which China is investing, particularly in Africa.

When the US financial crisis of September 2008 starved Kazakh oil companies of western debt finance, China stepped in with about $15 billion of loans, some tied to export deals, in 2009. There was a similar $25 billion package of loans for the Russian state-owned oil companies Rosneft and Transneft.

Kazakhstan’s 20 post-Soviet years could be interpreted as a shift from being a raw materials exporter to Russia, to being a raw materials exporter to China and the west (whose oil companies have made more headway in Kazakhstan than any other former Soviet state). For the next 20 years, you wouldn’t bet against China’s role rising constantly, and Russia’s declining further.

Perhaps during that time the Kazakh labour movement will take on some of the aggressive rank-and-file militancy, and intolerance for traditional union structures, that has characterised many recent strikes in China.

+++ You can hear about the strike on the Solidarity Report from Radio Labour. Download the latest (28 March) mp3 from here http://www.radiolabour.net/ and go to the 2 minute mark.

Note. I have written this article on the basis of reports in Ak Zhaiyk and Deutsche Welle, and on KMG E&P’s web site. This was the most substantial information I could find (links below for Russian speakers). I would welcome further information from anyone who has it.

http://azh.kz/2010/03/11/v-zhanaozene-tretijj-den-idjot.html

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,5376521,00.html


$9bn+ import bill could renew gas conflict

January 28, 2010

Ukraine’s troubles with Russian gas and Russia’s troubles with Ukrainian transit are not over yet, even though there was a truce this winter. Although the next Ukrainian president, to be elected in second-round voting on 7 February, will be less antagonistic towards Russia than outgoing head of state Viktor Yushchenko, the underlying causes of the “gas wars” remain. In 2009, the government underwrote $6 billion plus of import payments, and the International Monetary Fund underwrote the government. Who will pay the 2010 import bills, likely to total $9 billion plus? See my comment in the Moscow Times here. http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/preventing-new-gas-wars/398420.html


Russian power nervous of social protest

January 13, 2010

Russia’s economic recovery, if it has begun at all, is fragile. The recession has pushed 6 million more people into poverty, and in 2010 the government remains wary of social protest. That’s the gist of a BBC World Today radio interview I gave, which you can listen to here:  World Today interview 10.1.10