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Analysis & Opinion
17.02.09 Harvesting Discontent
By Sergei Balashov

Russia’s worn out dissenters may soon give way to an emerging force that is likely to take center stage amid growing discontent, since the general public is getting too few answers from both the state and the opposition. Labor unions are likely to find the most support among the electorate, since many have lost their jobs and have been struggling since the start of the crisis. Reluctant to take a political stance up till now, the unions have begun making political demands and now voice their willingness to go as far as to cooperate with the political opposition.

The state’s anti-crisis campaign has so far failed to produce palpable results, leaving many dissatisfied. While confusion among the electorate persists, a credible alternative to the mainstream parties, mostly seen as apathetic or under considerable state control, is yet to have been offered. None of the opposition forces seems to have the ability to harness the tide of the social unrest, despite their ingenuity in finding ways to hold relentless demonstrations despite the authorities’ constant disapproval.

The movements and parties comprising the Other Russia coalition have taken a hard line approach, calling for the government’s immediate resignation and a restoration of what they see as democratic values that have all but perished since the current regime came to power. But with their record and their goals challenged, they don’t have sufficient public support to grow into a full-fledged political force. The agitated car owners protesting against higher tariffs on imported cars also fall short of resonating with the majority of the discontented. “Most of the opposition offers vague abstract slogans, like ‘Russia without Putin’,” said Pavel Salin, an expert at the Russian Center of Political Trends.

Labor unions have also participated in nationwide protests, but their list of demands has been limited to defending the rights of the laid-off auto workers and those who have seen their salaries slashed. Yet their potential appeal stretches way beyond this group. “They appear to be the single force that matches the demands of the disgruntled electorate the most: they merely stand for the workers’ rights without trumping any political slogans. People like [Ford union leader] Alexei Etmanov want to go nationwide and have enough support, but in this particular case he hasn’t yet expressed any political ambitions,” said Salin.

Not all unions should be viewed as potentially carrying political weight, as most of the major organized groups are openly siding with the government. Russia’s largest union organization – the Federation of Independent Labor Unions has been perceived as a part of the ruling elite since the Soviet times, used as the state’s tool to settle any grievances within the labor force. The ruling United Russia party has decided to expand its support among union organizations last November, and struck a cooperation agreement with another major union coalition Sotsprof, boasting a membership of over 1.5 million. But while the remaining unions aren’t as organized yet, the situation is changing and their political ambitions are becoming more evident.

Up until now, workers’ unions have generally been out of the political mainstream. The auto unions and their leaders gained nationwide recognition during the strikes at the Ford plant in St. Petersburg and the ensuing legal battles between the carmaker and its employees. But a few times, both the unions and the car owners have acted on their own, drawing support from political parties, most notably the communists. Before last week’s wave of protests, Etmanov, who is also a co-chair of the Interregional Union of Auto Industry Workers, said that cooperation with the dissenters would be welcomed. He also appealed to all public organizations willing to take a stance against the “worsening living conditions of Russian workers,” urging them to join in. “Some unions are already siding with the dissenters and participate in their rallies. Nobody has approached us with such offers; if they do come, we will consider,” the Baltic Information Agency reported Etmanov as saying.

And such offers are indeed likely to come, as the political opposition’s criticism of the Vladimir Putin-headed government slowly begins resonating with unionized workers. Their potential for rallying various political forces for a common cause is also high. “If a new political organization, say a party, does indeed emerge, it will likely be something new, since most of the current opposition leaders have highly negative ratings. They’re perceived as not necessarily championing the interests of the public, but that’s generally not the case with union leaders,” said Alexander Kynev, a political scientist at the Foundation for Informational Policy Development.

Independent unions have already stirred enough controversy even before they started coming to political prominence, which can serve as a record of their adamancy to outside pressure. Last Sunday, the unions protested not only against the layoffs, but also defended their leaders, who have fallen victim to numerous attacks. Etmanov has been attacked twice, while GM union leader Evgeny Ivanov was assaulted in February. Union activists are also demanding the release of ALROSA union boss Valentin Urusov, currently serving a six-year-long sentence following a conviction on drug charges that they claim were based on planted evidence.

Union members believe that these attacks, which occurred during conflicts with their employers, are directly related to their leaders’ activities, but say that none of the unions gave in to the threats. “If the unions step up beyond their local status, they could gain significance. You can’t just set up a party on the basis of nothing, while this scenario of a public organization turning into a party is rather commonplace, if we look at developed democracies,” said Kynev.
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