Yaroslavl Hunger Strike Gets Cold Shoulder

For MTFrom left, hunger strikers Kirgizov, Mitrofanov, Viktor Pshenitsyn and Ilya Kornev outside the factory on Wednesday.
YAROSLAVL -- For the past two weeks, Vladimir Vinogradov has slept in a tent outside his former workplace, surviving on a diet of water, tea and vitamin pills.

With a group of former colleagues at the Kholodmash factory, where he has worked since 1999, Vinogradov has been on a hunger strike to protest several months of unpaid wages.

The protest -- which began a week before the March 2 presidential election -- is a surprising throwback to the Yeltsin era, when workers across the country often went without pay for months on end amid a brutal transition to market economics.

Kholodmash, a refrigerating-equipment plant whose clients included leading state-owned defense concern Almaz-Antei, is facing bankruptcy proceedings, and its workers were fired without severance pay.

On Feb. 25, Vinogradov, 58, an engineer who headed the plant's technical-control department, and four of his former colleagues launched a hunger strike in the front of the plant's gates in a desperate attempt to draw attention to the workers' plight.

"We'll stay here for as long as our health permits," Vinogradov said. "It's the 15th day now. According to medical science, we should last for a month."

"It's like we're at war here," he added.

Other former workers support the core group of hunger strikers: Women are often around during the daytime, while men, many of whom found other jobs, come after work.

This is the workers' third, and longest, protest against unpaid wages. In 2006, they occupied the factory and held the general director hostage in his office. Shortly after that they held a hunger strike, an action they repeated last year.

Both hunger strikes, Vinogradov said, were successful as well as relatively brief, thanks to the intervention of Anatoly Lisitsyn, the Yaroslavl governor at the time. Lisitsyn stepped down in December after the region posted lower-than-average numbers for United Russia in the State Duma elections.

The newly appointed governor, Sergei Vakhrukov, has not responded to the protesters' appeals, and in the run-up to the presidential vote, local media largely ignored the protest.

On Monday, Yaroslav Alyoshin, a local activist with Sotsialisticheskoye Soprotivleniye, or Socialist Resistance, a left-wing movement that is supporting the workers, said sources had told him that Vakhrukov's deputy, Vasily Danilov, had gone to Moscow in a possible attempt to find funds to pay the workers.

The small picket in Yaroslavl comes as independent labor unions across the country have begun to flex their muscles in the last couple years. Most notably, workers at the Ford plant near St. Petersburg have won pay raises in a series of strikes, and emboldened employees at other companies across the country have taken up demands for wages to keep pace with rising inflation.

The workers and Yaroslavl residents who support the hunger strikers said they were puzzled as to why such a protest was required at all, given the country's oil-fueled economic boom. The workers also said they could not imagine that the authorities would so brazenly ignore their demands.

Neither plant managers nor the local authorities have spoken to the workers so far, Vinogradov said Monday.

Last week, Vinogradov and local Communist Party members picketed the regional administration's offices, but nobody came out to talk to them.

"What do you want?" said a man carrying a suitcase as he tried to sneak past the protesters into the plant last week. "The plant went bankrupt, the management is not here, and there's nobody to talk to," the man said.

The workers identified the man as Igor Kalinkin, chairman of the plant's board of directors.

After two weeks on hunger strike, the protesters' health is deteriorating, Vinogradov said.

On Saturday, one of the workers, Alexander Mitrofanov, 40, had to stop the strike because of high blood pressure. Another worker, Dmitry Kirgizov, also 40, is having stomach problems and soon gets short of breath when he starts chopping wood to keep a fire going.

Two days ago, the strikers began taking lemon and honey, Vinogradov said.

Vinogradov said he and his comrades were trying to keep their spirits up. He joked that they had not stopped their picket despite the International Women's Day holiday, and at least they had saved on the gifts. Women were eager to participate in the hunger strike but the men wouldn't let them, he added.

The plant's troubles appeared to have started several years ago when it failed to pay off a loan to finance production of new equipment under license from Italy's Zanussi.

The local authorities, who guaranteed the loan, later changed their position, instead offering a loan to help pay workers' salaries.

Layoffs began in 2003. Many workers agreed to leave of their own volition after being promised they would be paid. Others were fired.

A local court ruled that the workers, who made an average of less than 10,000 rubles ($420) per month, should get their back pay in full. The bill would have come to 28 million rubles ($1.17 million), the workers said.

A source close to Vakhrukov, the current governor, said the workers stood little chance of getting paid by the plant, but if they "continue making noise ... the regional administration [may] come up with the money."

Sergei Grechka, former general director at Yaroslavl Compressor Plant's sales division, said the management wanted to sell off plant equipment to pay the workers' salaries, but court marshals had seized the equipment. "The administration promised to help, then ... probably forgot," he said by telephone.

Details of exactly why the plant went bankrupt are sketchy.

A source at Almaz-Antei, which held a 20 percent stake in Kholodmash, said it lost control of the situation. The defense concern's representatives were forced off the company's board of directors, essentially rendering it helpless, he said.

"We've been suing them since 2006," said the source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. "The situation is very complicated."

In 2006, Almaz-Antei issued a statement, blamed the factory's problems on the "illegal actions of private shareholders" that controlled more than 50 percent of the company.

In 2003 and 2004, the shareholders transferred Kholodmash's main production facilities and property to Yaroslavl Compressor Plant, in which they also had a stake, Almaz-Antei said in the statement. Kholodmash had to rent the premises from its subsidiary and wound up owing it money, the statement said.

Tatyana Ruzina, a participant in the 2006 occupation, said that this time the workers had taken their complaint to the local branch of United Russia.

"They told us, 'So what? We're not interested. We're getting our 60 percent anyway,'" she recalled.

The workers also called the Kremlin, she said. They were told to submit their complaints in writing and were advised instead to call Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic party, Ruzina said.

Another participant in the 2006 occupation, Valentina Shugladze, who worked at the plant for 38 years, said one of the workers managed to get through to a telephone operator during the president's live televised call-in show.

"She was told she wouldn't be allowed to go on the air, but her case would be considered. They're still considering it. ... If we don't see any results, we'll join the men," Shugladze said.

The protesters said they voted for the Communists in the presidential election.

"We don't want to vote for the candidates they offered and the 'against all' option has been removed," said Taisia Bogatyryova, a former designer at the plant.

Putin's successor, Dmitry Medvedev, garnered 63.58 percent of the vote in the Yaroslavl region -- less than the national average of 70.28 percent, according to the Central Elections Commission. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov polled 20.64 percent there, compared with 17.72 percent countrywide.

The local community is offering the hunger strikers practical support, with residents of adjacent buildings bringing them warm clothes and tea. Local doctors come every day to check up on the strikers.

And workers from a nearby bread factory have recently asked for advice on organizing a picket of their own factory, Vinogradov said. "They haven't been paid for anywhere from two to four months," he said.

Support has also come from farther afield, with letters of solidarity being sent to the strikers from workers at the Ford plant and oil firm Surgutneftegaz.

"The miners from Vorkuta are supporting us too," said Vinogradov after taking a phone call last week. "They were on hunger strike for 30 days and got what they wanted. They wish us patience and good luck."

Staff Writer Anna Smolchenko reported from Moscow.