Russian workers’ wage arrears protests send Putin a chilling reminder of the Yeltsin era

Are pay disputes making Putin sweat? Sergei Chirikov/EPA

While Russia faces global disapproval over its role in Ukraine, president Vladimir Putin has trouble brewing at home. A shared sense of nationalist fervour had helped to underpin an approval rating that reached 84% in August, but with sanctions biting there are signs of pay delays and strikes which spark dark memories of the Yeltsin era.

Late payment of wages, a routine practice during the economic catastrophe of the 1990s, is once again becoming a problem, with delays of two to three months increasingly reported. In response to this, there have been a number of spontaneous strikes among miners, chemical workers, workers in metallurgy and the public sector.

How big a headache is this for Putin? A recent article regarding wage arrears in the Russian weekly Ogonek reminded readers that the Polish Solidarity movement began with economic demands, and that miners’ protests were a precipitating factor in the break-up of the Soviet Union. The question now is whether worker protests have the potential to be similarly influential in contemporary Russia.

Coherent voices

In the 1990s, the big story regarding wage delays in Russia was not the social unrest they caused, but rather the lack of effective protest. Although strikes and direct action frequently occurred when wage delays stretched beyond six months, such protests never coalesced into a coherent movement against the government’s “stabilisation” programme, a budgetary squeeze which was the root cause of the wage delays.

Instead, Boris Yeltsin’s government was able to pursue a policy of “unresponsive toleration”. This meant that it allowed protests to occur and only reacted when social order was seriously threatened. The most militant workers were periodically paid off, but non-payment of wages as a routine form of management was allowed to remain endemic.

Hunter, hunted. Putin the strongman. Dmitry Astakhov/EPA

Such a strategy regarding wage arrears is not open to Putin. A key element of Putin’s appeal has been as a guarantor of order and stability. Wage delays are a hated symbol of the chaos of the Yeltsin era – politically Putin needs to avoid a return to endemic non-payment at all costs. For the same reason, Putin has to avoid mass protest. Quite apart from his ingrained aversion to dissent, protest undermines Putin’s legitimacy as a “strong” leader.

The Russian government has taken a number of measures to halt the spread of wage arrears. It has substantially increased the fines employers must pay and the Ministry of Labour has also created a league table of regions based on the size of their wage debt. Such administrative instruments should put a lid on the kind of opportunistic non-payment of wages allowed during the 1990s, but they will be powerless if employers do not have the liquidity to pay on time.

The most important measure is therefore the planned multi-million dollar emergency bail-out fund for companies recently announced by the Russian government. The success of this is uncertain, and depends on how long the sanctions last, and how badly they impact the Russian economy.

State of the Union

How are workers likely to react to continued wage delays? In terms of organised labour, the vast majority of members belong to trade unions affiliated to the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), which grew out of the Soviet trade union movement. The FNPR has never fully emerged from its Soviet-era dependence on the state and employers. It failed to lead and co-ordinate workers’ protests during the wage arrears crisis of the 1990s, while in many local disputes the unions proved unwilling to support workers striking over wage delays. Meanwhile, in the Putin era, the state has made it clear that “disloyalty” on the part of the unions will not be tolerated.

All this means the unions are highly unlikely to use their (still considerable) institutional resources to co-ordinate any protest movement. It is therefore not surprising that most recent strikes have been organised by local strike committees outside the ranks of the unions. This was also the pattern of the 1989 and 1991 miners’ strikes, which helped Yeltsin’s rise to power, and in many of the strikes over wage non-payment in the 1990s.

Getting tough. Police in Moscow. Sergei Chirikov/EPA

Contemporary strikes are organised in an increasingly hostile environment. Putin has edged back towards Soviet methods of restraining industrial conflict. Low-level repression is routinely used: it is difficult to get permission to protest; legal strikes are virtually impossible to organise; organisations capable of mobilising protest are subject to police harassment and intimidation; protesters are liable to arrest and other forms of punishment.

Paradoxically, however, such repression may well make worker protest more threatening as it is not contained within institutional or legal channels. Disruptive worker protest is therefore a real possibility if the economic situation deteriorates.

Protest and survive

The bigger question is the political ramifications of such protest. The miners’ strike of 1991 helped usher in political change because the Soviet government of Mikhail Gorbachev faced a strong opponent in Yeltsin, who had been elected president of the Russian Republic of the USSR in June 1991. That is, it occurred within what the social movement theorist Sidney Tarrow would call a political “opportunity structure” that made external resources available to the labour movement and amplified its voice.

A key factor in opening up such opportunities for protest movements is cleavages within the political elite. Although the Russian elite is far from united, open dissent carries a high risk. This was underlined on September 16 when a loyal insider, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, chairman of the Sistema telecoms-to-oil conglomerate, was placed under house arrest on money-laundering charges. Analysts have been cited as saying his unwillingness to bend the knee over the sale of a business unit to state oil giant Rosneft might better explain his position. In any case, it is unclear that opposition led from within the current Russian elite would be good news for Russian workers. Indeed, workers gained little but a decade of wage delays for their support of Yeltsin.

Recent history, in the Arab world and beyond, provides ample illustration that the evolution of protest movements is unpredictable. But it also shows that in the absence of strong collective organisation, apparent liberation can be short-lived. The creation of effective, independent trade unions, and political representation, thus remains a key task for Russia’s workers.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.