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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Protest and Its Imitation

Today's "Day of Protest" has been awaited with uneasy anticipation. On the one hand, this is because everyone has already been waiting for quite some time for the discontent of the millions of people who have not been paid their wages to take on an organized political shape. Recent opinion polls show that 75 percent of the population is personally touched by the nonpayment of pensions and salaries. On the other hand, the interest in the event is being artificially heated up, because the main participants in this game are all interested in increasing public awareness of the protest.


The principal organizer of the strikes is not simply the unions but the Federation of Independent Unions of Russia, or FNPR, the country's largest trade union. This is the successor to the former official Soviet unions, the All-Union Central Trade Union Council. The structure of the FNPR fundamentally differs from classic trade unions. For example, trade unions that are part of the FNPR frequently accept not only seasonal workers, but stockholders and senior managers, who are often so-called "red directors." Moreover, at the base level, the FNPR counts tens of millions of ordinary workers, many of whom do not even understand that they are union members, while at the top is a group of holding companies that own hundreds of pieces of real estate.


The FNPR and its divisions are the virtual owners of such large properties in Moscow as the Palace of Labor on Leningradsky Prospekt, the hotel and tourist complex in Izmailovo, the House of Unions next to the State Duma and the Sputnik Hotel. Aside from these, they own hundreds of recreational properties such as sanatoriums in almost all the regions, the majority of which are in some of the most beautiful spots in health resort areas.


Essentially, the real estate that the FNPR inherited from the Soviet Communist Party has made it one of the largest property owners in Russia. After the 1991 coup, the question of nationalizing the property the Federation was bequeathed from the Soviet Central Trade Union has been raised several times. Using its nomenklatura ties in the new Russian government, the FNPR leadership has succeeded in holding on to its belongings. And although the FNPR lost one of its most important privileges -- the right to provide social security benefits -- it kept most of its real estate and office space.


The threat of nationalization hangs over the FNPR like Damocles' sword. Only the government, however, can carry through with this threat. Therefore the FNPR leadership has made it its absolute priority to keep good relations with the federal authorities. It is for this reason that we can take the Federation at its word when it says the protest will not lead to disorder or be used by radical political groups for their own ends. This means that the FNPR, no matter how much it criticizes the federal authorities, will remain more or less loyal to the government.


And the government knows this full well, since it considers the FNPR to be the main representative of seasonal or temporary workers. FNPR representatives are always divided into three-sided commissions made up of employers, part-time laborers and the government. On the one side, the union simulates its support for labor interests and mass strikes. On the other, the government, which is convinced that the general strike will come to nothing, pretends that it will meet workers' demands.


It is impossible not to notice that the FNPR is providing social and political stability and minimizing the impact of the protest. In this sense, the Federation has practically become an ally of the reformist government.


Why then is the FNPR not only organizing mass strikes but directing them against the federal authorities, despite the fact that the federal government's share of debt to workers is significantly less than half? First, this is because, fearing nationalization and trying to assert itself on the political scene, the Federation is forced to play by the rules of the game and therefore attempts to present itself as a defender of workers' interests. The Federation is not so much organizing the wave of protest as uniting with it in order to extinguish it. Moreover, the FNPR is greatly decentralized and its local branches and union organizations in industries still depend more on regional authorities and on directors than the Federation's leadership does on the federal authorities. Therefore, the regional branches of the FNPR are not able to sharply criticize employers and regional authorities.


The government fears a radicalization of the protest more than anything. Therefore, the FNPR is not allowing the true opponents of the government to use the widespread discontent for their own political aims. The leaders of the demonstration are thus complying with the government's wish that representatives from political forces will not be given a chance to speak out at the meetings. Above all, this cuts the Communists off from the most important channel of spreading their influence.


Thus, today's protest will in all likelihood be carried out in very organized fashion and under moderate slogans. The only exception could be in small provincial towns, where the level of economic depression is very high, and the influence of the radical opposition is traditionally great. At the same time, the mass action will undoubtedly help the trade union movement on the whole to become more active and to develop.


As a result of the protest, trade unions could strengthen their influence in the government. An invitation to FNPR leader Mikhail Shmakov to join the government cannot be excluded. In any case, this could be a very strong step for the newly appointed deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov to take.





Sergei Markov is a senior researcher at the Moscow Carnegie Center. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.