How Many Putins Does It Take To Save Russia?

Pikalevo protests.  Source: lefdon.ruAfter a series of economic protests in the small industrial town of Pikalevo, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rushed in to try to resolve the situation on June 4th.  Residents had taken to the streets after the town’s major employers closed their doors, failing to pay some $1.5 million in back wages and even shutting off communal services.

The St. Petersburg branch of the Solidarity democratic opposition movement earlier contended that the Russian government had not taken enough steps to combat the economic crisis, and was complicit in the situation in Pikalevo.

“The events in Pikalevo once again show that the so-called anti-crisis measures of the Russian authorities don’t intend to provide actual support for those who have suffered as result of the crisis,” a statement by the group said.  “The problems of Pikalevo’s residents, just like millions of other Russian citizens, cannot be solved without a fundamental change to the political regime which has formed in today’s Russia.”

Journalist Mikhail Rostovsky comments on the importance of the visit in the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper.  Since Putin’s visit and Rostovsky’s article, workers have received their back pay and the town’s employers have pledged to re-open their factories.

Read more about Pikalevo from the New York Times.

How Many Putins Does It Take To Save Russia?
Stability throughout Russia depends on the premier’s performance in Pikalevo.
Moskovsky Komsomolets
Mikhail Rostovsky
June 5, 2009

Yesterday, Vladimir Putin made the most important trip of the year, perhaps, of his whole premiership. The premier visited Pikalevo near St.Petersburg, symbol of riots in Russia these last several days. It will be no exaggeration to say that stability throughout the whole country depends on Putin’s decisions yesterday. There is a hundred Pikalevos in Russia, may be more. Should the signal Putin sent yesterday prove incorrect, protests may cover all of Russia before long.

Given certain conditions, a nationwide revolt might be provoked by protests in a single township. Pikalevo, whose existence had been absolutely unknown to 99% Russians, found itself balancing on the verge of transformation into such a political fuse.

The story of Pikalevo, a sleepy hick town, is simple to the point of being banal. The few enterprises in it, ones employing practically all locals, came to a screeching halt. The population found itself left with nothing to live on. Pikalevo drew the attention of the whole society for a single reason. Its residents were the first to put into motion the apocalyptical scenario Yevgeny Gontmakher (an authority on social problems) had come up with last year: revolt in a township with stalled industry, attack on the municipal administration building, pickets on a federal highway fomenting a colossal jam (colossal indeed – 400 kilometers long).

At first sight, the task Putin found himself facing in Pikalevo yesterday was fairly simple. The federal center has sufficient money to buy a golden toilet bowl for every resident of Pikalevo. Ensuring decent living conditions in the township will be even easier. Particularly as the servile Duma has already suggested nationalization as a means that will restore order again and cool down tempers. Lawmakers’ reasoning was as follows: if Barack Obama in America all but made General Motors an asset of the US Administration, then it will certainly be all right for us to follow suit in Russia.

As a matter of fact, Putin’s visit to Pikalevo was like a stroll down a political minefield. What the Duma suggested in the meantime amounted to the offer to deliver a kick at the largest mine.

Procurement of factories in Pikalevo with budget funds in order to revive them again is going to solve no problems, nationwide. This nationalization will rather be a message to the rest of the crisis territories in Russia: you fed up with being semi-starved? Mutiny is the ticket. Overrun the local administration, throw officials out the nearest window, and cut off the railroad or whatever you have close by. It will certainly bring Putin himself rushing to you with a huge federal wallet… Hard to imagine a worst scenario for Russia. Bare weeks later, not even a hundred Putins will be able to cope with the swelling wave of riots.

And if nationalization is out, then what? Prosecute “inefficient owners” who brought this all to pass in townships centered around a single enterprise (or two or even three enterprises)? Prosecution will make unemployed residents of these towns happy but it is not being happy that they are really after.

Wrong moment to be saying that starving townships with idle enterprises in them are what Russia is paying for the arrogance with which its authorities neglected structural problems of economy. There is no more work somewhere? In America, people get into their car, put their belongings into the trailer, and move to wherever jobs are still available. In Russia, however, the so called territorial mobility of the population is thoroughly under developed. Telling the population of Pikalevo to move on is like advising the starved lacking bread to try living on cookies.

There is no saying at this point exactly what Putin is going to tell residents of Pikalevo. Telling them the truth would have been probably the best. And what is it? That the situation is extremely tricky. That the government does not have a single solution for all Pikalevos in the country (cannot have one, actually) so that every analogous case ought to be handled individually. This is a task of staggering proportions, of course, but there are no alternatives to it.