Ted Grant

Strike wave highlights disillusionment with Yeltsin

Source: Unknown, January 8, 1997
Markup: Maarten 2008

In 1936 Leon Trotsky predicted that “the fall of the present bureaucratic dictatorship, if it were not replaced by a new socialist power, would thus mean a return to capitalist relations with a catastrophic decline of industry and culture.” (The Revolution Betrayed, p. 251.) The last five or six years have provided ample proof of this.

The US journal Newsweek (17/6/96) admitted: “The harshness of the transition has produced fury. In the coal-mining regions of northern Russia, men in the pits went months without getting paid earlier this year. Many pension payments have also been late. If capitalism doesn’t stand for a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work—or a commitment to make good on obligations to retirees—‘then what does it stand for?’ asks a bitter Lyudmila Sakharova.” The economic crisis has been accompanied by a frightful collapse in living standards. A large proportion of the population lives in conditions of poverty not seen since the War. Millions face malnutrition, if not actual hunger. Wages are not paid for months on end as a result of the huge debts accumulated by state-owned enterprises and the collapse of the central plan.

The spiralling inflation has eaten away wages (if they are paid) and pensions. In 1995 alone real wages fell by almost 20 per cent. This is on top of falls for the previous four to five years. “I already live on bread and tea. I haven’t seen meat in years,” says Fainia Moligina, a 67 year old pensioner who says she gets just 160,000 roubles (£22) a month. “If prices go up, there will be only starvation.” A loaf of black bread then cost around 2,200 roubles (30p) in Moscow, but with the worst harvest for 30 years, experts from the Ministry of Agriculture warned that the price could quickly rise to 4,750 roubles (64p). The collapse in living standards is far from complete. Inflation continues to eat away at wages and pensions. But millions only receive them after months of delay. “Total payment of wage arrears to government workers and of back pensions is absolutely unreal,” revealed the economics minister, Yevgeny Yasin. (The Guardian, 27/5/96.)

The idea peddled in the West, that Yeltsin’s electoral victory signified a rosy dawn for democracy in Russia was false from first to last. Even in the next few months there can be upheavals, once the effect of the election has worn off. The speed with which events unfold depends partly on the general economic situation, which, in turn, is linked to the perspectives for the world economy.

Before the Presidential elections, the IMF turned a blind eye to Russia’s financial mess. But once the victory of their man had been confirmed, they agreed to a loan, but it was to be paid in monthly instalments. This technique enabled the Western moneybags to get a stranglehold on Russia, exercising a blatant kind of blackmail on Moscow. They are pushing the situation to the limits, thus creating the conditions for a social explosion, the outline of which can already be observed.

Throughout the Autumn, there has been a wave of strikes throughout the length and breadth of Russia. This movement reflects the general disillusionment with Yeltsin and his government and a growing rejection of “market economics.” The immediate issue is wage arrears. Wage arrears have increased by 15% throughout the country over the past few months. Total arrears in wages at all levels of the budget and for enterprises under all types of ownership are somewhere on the order of 42 trillion rubles. The outbreak of strikes and other protests shows the existence of enormous bitterness, mainly of the miners and the industrial working class, but also increasingly of a layer of white collar workers and professional people—teacher, doctors, scientists, army officers and engineers, some of whom have resorted to hunger strikes. In St. Petersburg the workers at a huge Chernobyl-type nuclear power station declared themselves on hunger strike. The central issue was the non-payment of wages. A mass hunger strike involving more than 200 workers began at the Maritime Territory SRPS on September 3rd.

On September 16th, all the enterprises of Dalenergo (Far East Power) plus the Maritime Territory State Regional Power Station, which is not a part of that association, went on strike —11,000 people in all. At 124 naval enterprises in St. Petersburg, civilian personnel went on strike on September 19th. The entire police force in the city of Arsenyev, Maritime Territory, declared an open-ended strike on October 11th. In the same city 10 days later, 400 workers at the district heating enterprise went on strike. Borough court judges in St. Petersburg were on strike for more than a month, and their colleagues in Smolensk held a one-day strike on October 22nd.

On the fifth of November the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FITUR) called a day of protest which involved strikes, rallies demonstations and gatherings were held in almost all parts of the country. Hundreds of thousands took part in strikes, demonstrations and marches across Russia. Then came a new round of miners’ and teachers’ strikes.

True, the union leaders, like their counterparts in the West, clearly intended this as a way to “blow off steam.” But so desperate is the situation that it is not sure that the union leadership will be able to hold the line. As one commentator put it: “However, the danger remains that in some regions the old skins of FITUR actions will not be able to hold the new wine of discontent. What will happen in that event, no one knows.”(The Current Digest, No. 44.)

“The most vigorous action, now traditional, was taken by Russia’s miners. 198 of Russia’s 218 coal mines staged a 24-hour strike in which, according to Vitaly Budko, chairman of the Russian Union of Coal Industry Workers, 460,000 employees of the branch took part.”

“In many cities of central Russia, despite the fact that the trade unions were the official organisers of the action, its tone was set by representatives of the Communists and the popular-patriotic forces. For example, at a rally in Ryazan the Communist candidate for governor, Vyacheslav Lyubimov, urged the assemblage to ‘disobey the policy of the current government.’ At a rally of 20,000 people in Yaroslavl, it was stated that the protest action should be regarded as an ultimatum to the country’s leadership. Among the slogans was the following: ‘Either you address the needs of the people, or we will launch a political struggle involving the declaration of a general political strike and demands for an early presidential election and the resignation of the government’.” (ibid)

Most of these strikes are organised not by trade unions but by strike committees at factory level. Interestingly, in some cases the managers have been actively promoting strikes in order to get money from the state. As the same commentator ironically remarked: “now the bosses, driven out of the trade unions, are in the vanguard of the strike movement.” The contradiction is only apparent. This reflects the fact that, whereas a small group of ex bureaucrats like Chernomyrdin have become fabulously rich, the majority of the old bureaucracy have not benefitted from the movement towards capitalism at all.

The miners’ strike

Once again the miners are in the vanguard. According to the miners’ union Rosugleprofsoyuz, 161 of the country’s 189 mines and 27 of its 69 open pits struck against wage arrears and poor working conditions. Miners are owed 2,600 billion roubles (468 million dollars) in back wages and 1,500 billion roubles (270 million dollars) in subsidies. A further 7,500 billion roubles (1.35 billion dollars) are owed by coal customers. The worst debtors are the electricity generating companies. They owe 4,100 billion roubles, a 110 percent increase on the figure at the start of 1996. Agriculture and associated industries owe 2,700 billion roubles, steel mills 640 billion roubles, and now independent former Soviet states, 26 billion roubles. Thus the breakdown of the plan has had a disastrous effect at all levels.

“No solution to the social problems in the coal-mining regions is possible without the adoption of a state programme and its control by the top officials,” one miners’ leader has said.

The militant Vorkuta coal miners’ union federation supports an indefinite strike. Elsewhere for different reasons, only partial actions were observed. In Irkutsk, East Siberia, 10 coal quarries and two mines of the Vostsibugol joint-stock company stopped work for 24 hours as a token protest.

Very rapidly the strike movement began to put forward political slogans. Central to the miners’ demands is the resignation of the government.. At a joint protest meeting of coal miners and power engineering workers in Vladivostok dismissal of the cabinet was demanded. The meeting was attended by delegates of all enterprises affiliated to the regional Primorskugol and Dalenergo joint stock companies that run the mining and power operations in the far eastern Russian territory.

Galina Strela, executive secretary on the 65-million-member Russian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, was quoted in the Morning Star as saying:

“‘This problem has been dragging on for years and people have tried hard to make adjustments and come to terms with present-day realities, but the situation only grows more and more desperate for Russian workers. Unless people are given some hope, an explosion is inevitable.’ Russia’s far eastern territory is in a state of near chaos after weeks of rolling strikes by coalminers and energy workers.

“Huge areas of Siberia have been hit by walkouts of coalminers, transport workers and power station employees—the number of such job actions reported by the official ITAR-Tass seems to grow with each passing day. The governor of the coalmining region of Kuzbass has halted remittance of tax revenues to Moscow and declared a local state of emergency, arguing that the situation in the Siberian territory is ‘catastrophic,’ with tens of thousands of unpaid miners lacking money to buy food for their families.

“In the central Russian city of Belgorod, 4,500 defence industry workers blockaded the regional administration buildings last week, complaining that they haven’t received any income at all since the beginning of 1996. There has been a huge upsurge in wildcat strikes and we can expect this to grow, perhaps to uncontrollable dimensions, in the coming weeks,’ says Ms Strela.”

The mood of anger in the masses threatens to boil over. This is shown by the following extract: “It was never reported on television that recently it was only with the help of OMON special police that the mayor of a city in Khakassia was pulled from the hands of an infuriated crowd (he had tried to address some ralliers, and someone shouted: ‘Why listen to him? We should hang people like that!’). And the newspapers wrote nothing when, in the Moscow Coal Basin a few days ago, it was only by a miracle that miners avoided a clash with policemen who had blocked the way of a column of people heading to a rally (the authorities had sanctioned the rally, but not the procession).” (The Current Digest)

A Rasputin regime

The Russian bourgeois, made up of get-rich-quick merchants, feel they have no real long term future. In such a regime, as under tsarism, the formation of a “court camarilla” with all its attendant intrigues and conspiracies, is inevitable. A recent report in the Financial Times revealed that the real power in the Kremlin was not the sick President, but a clique of seven Mafia-capitalists, unelected and answerable to nobody, who apparently own half the Russian economy:

“The same tight-knit group of seven businessmen now meets weekly and works closely with Mr Chubais, now the ailing President Yeltsin’s chief of staff. Its members portray themselves quite openly as the main force shaping Kremlin policy…Mr Mikhail Khodorkovsky, president of the Menatep financial and oil empire; Mr Peter Aven and Mr Mikhail Friedman of Alfa Bank; and Mr Alexander Smolensky of Stolichny Bank. Their six enterprises, according to Mr Berezovsky, control about 50 per cent of the economy.

“‘He (Potanin) had the feeling that one of the big bankers had to go there,’ he said. ‘he had the support of the other big banks.’ The businessmen’s reasoning was stark. Even if the threat of communism had receded with the July election, Russia’s future as a flourishing and stable market economy was far from secure. Not only was the president largely out of action pending heart surgery; there was also the risk of serious social unrest, with wage arrears mounting and government finances collapsing.” (Financial Times, 1/11/1996.)

Even Yeltsin’s daughter is now a key figure in this murky world of manoeuvre and back-stabbing, although she is not elected by anyone and answers to nobody. This is a throwback to the degenerate Rasputin regime. But the Rasputin regime eventually led to the February revolution.

After the Presidential elections, Lebed was clearly preparing to seize power in the event of Yeltsin’s death. His demagogic speeches warning that Yeltsin’s promises must be carried out was an indication that he was attempting to build a mass base of support. But when the President recovered, the Kremlin camarilla was ready for him. As soon as Lebed showed signs of preparing to set himself up as a national Saviour, among other things meddling in the Chechen affair, he was removed by a palace coup. However, the removal of Lebed does not solve the problem. Yeltsin is a sick man, who can disappear from the scene at any time. That would be the signal for an open power struggle between the rival factions. The situation remains extraordinarily volatile and unstable, and Lebed continues to manoeuvre, remaining as a reserve weapon of the nascent bourgeois.

These shifting combinations at the top have a largely accidental character, reflecting the impasse of the regime. But whatever the particular combination, the general tendency must be in the direction of Bonapartism, a regime which expresses the deadlock between the classes in which the weak and rotten Russian bourgeoisie is unable to establish a social equilibrium by “normal” means, and the proletariat, paralysed by its leadership, is unable to carry out a complete reconstruction of society from top to bottom.

Events can be precipitated by movements on the political plane. Lenin pointed out that the first condition for a revolution is a split in the ruling class or caste. The ruling elite in Russia is already split. This is no accident. The political instability at the top is a distorted reflection of the general instability in society. For the past six years, there has been one upheaval after another, and no end is in sight.

The main thing is that the masses have had a taste of the “joys” of capitalism, and are drawing their conclusions. They see the collapse of living standards, universal ruin and impoverishment on the one hand, and an unspeakably corrupt and degenerate regime on the other. It is bad enough that the government of Russia should be in the hands of a gang of seven bandits who have robbed billions from the people. But this fact is not even concealed. Everybody knows it. The blatant conduct of the mafia capitalists is itself one of the main factors stoking up tremendous indignation which must sooner or later result in an explosion. The CP leader Zyuganov has even warned of a revolution in Russia in 1997.

“Pay the soldiers!”

Yeltsin would do well to reflect on the last words uttered by the Roman emperor Septimus Severus: “Pay the soldiers. That is all that matters.” But Yeltsin has learnt nothing from the fate either of the Roman emperors or of the tsarist regime in 1917.The mighty Red Army which a few years ago was in a position to occupy Europe in a week, is reduced to begging in the streets. The ferment in the armed forces was graphically described in the above-mentioned issue of The Current Digest (No. 44, 1996):

“The Federation of Trade Unions of Employees of the Armed Forces held a major protest action in the centre of Moscow yesterday. Several hundred military trade union activists turned out for a rally demanding that back wages be paid and the draft defence budget for 1997 be revised. They also called for the resignation both of individual government ministers and of the entire Cabinet. Although protest actions by civilian personnel of the Ministry of Defence have become rather commonplace in recent months (this is not surprising: Arrears in pay have topped 7 trillion rubles, and the Defence `ministry’s total debts exceed 20 trillion rubles; at some enterprises that repair military equipment, no pay has been received for about a year now), this action was still exceptional in scope.

“The Muscovites were supported by their colleagues from the Northern and Pacific Fleets of the Russian Navy. More than a dozen rear-services enterprises and organisations of the Northern Fleet participated in a strike in Murmansk, and about 100 other military organisations and services in the Arctic region stopped working for one to three hours in solidarity with the strikers. In the Far East, all enterprises of the Pacific Fleet took part in protest actions.

“Sevodnya’s sources in the Ministry of Defence told the editors that, although the officers’ corps has not yet formally joined the protest actions, since this is prohibited by legislation, the servicemen completely support the demands that have been advanced and ‘are even prepared to word them much more toughly and to take them out onto the square, as the Decembrists did’.”

The reference to the Decembrists is highly significant. This was a revolutionary movement of progressive army officers which attempted to organise a conspiracy against the tsarist autocracy after the Napoleonic wars. The stupidity of the Yeltsin government in neglecting to pay the army is really incredible. It is an indication of the depth of the crisis and the impasse of the present set-up. The general social discontent will find an expression among the soldiers. This means that a revolutionary movement of the working class would immediately find an echo in the army. Even more than in February 1917, there would be a real possibility of a peaceful overturn, particularly if a genuine Leninist mass party existed.

Whether or not the present strike wave signifies the start of a generalised movement, or just a warning shot, it is impossible to say on the basis of the limited information at our disposal. But it is clear that big changes are taking place in the psychology of the proletariat. At any rate, it is a clear answer to all the faint-hearts and sceptics who had explicitly or implicitly written off the Russian working class. In the heat of battle, the Russian workers will rediscover the revolutionary traditions of 1905 and 1917.