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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hunting Tourists and Pensioners

At their latest training exercises, Russian riot police learned how to disperse a protest staged by disgruntled pensioners. This could come in handy because the new “protest season” has just opened. But it would be very difficult to classify these protests as liberal or democratic.

For example, AvtoVAZ workers in Tolyatti recently staged a demonstration. Most Russians do not have many positive associations with the word “Zhiguli.” The factory loses about $1,000 on every car that it produces, and the huge government credits given to AvtoVAZ since the crisis hit have evaporated into thin air. The protesting workers were not demanding that the management stop stealing. They only wanted their paychecks to continue.

During a summer vacation in Altai, I visited the village of Aktash where protesters blocked a federal highway demanding repairs to a local school. Aktash was built in 1949 to support the opening of a nearby mercury mine. All of the mercury was removed by the early 1990s. Then all the equipment was stolen. The owners of the mine wanted to earn money by processing the mercury tailings, but since the ovens used to burn off the impurities had been pilfered, the tailings were dumped in a heap outside the village.

The mine is dead, and the village is toxic. The people have no work and no hope. When I asked why they didn’t move to another city, they answered, “This is our home.”

Not far from Gorno-Altaisk is a village named Urlu-Aspak. When Prime Minister Vladimir Putin vacationed in Altai last summer, the villagers there also blocked a major road. The reason was that in the early 1990s, when farmers had the right to obtain shares in the local kolkhoz, the villagers of Urlu-Aspak left the land in the hands of the state. A few years later, that land was bought up by the Sistema holding owned by billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov.

Sistema built the Altai Resort Village on that land near Urlu-Aspak. Because many of the villagers are chronic drinkers, they cannot get jobs at the resort so they support themselves by gathering pine nuts and hunting badgers in the nearby woods. Two to three jars of fat can be rendered from a single badger — about one-fourth of a barrel. The resort is protected by a high wall. Without it, apparently, the destitute villagers would be hunting tourists instead of badgers.

When the Altai Resort Village expanded last summer, it blocked the road into the woods that the villagers had used, forcing them to trek an additional 14 kilometers in search of nuts and badgers. When the villagers learned that Putin was scheduled to visit the resort, they used stones to spell out a message near the helipad where he would land. It read, “Putin, give us back our land!”

Protests by pensioners, AvtoVAZ workers and Altai villagers have one thing in common: They are staged by people who either cannot or do not want to work. Their one request is that the government put them on the dole.

To be sure, there is a spattering of good protests in Russia — for example, the Dissenters’ Marches and protests staged by automobile owners. But on the whole, the Kremlin has little to worry about since the threat from protests is very low. The riot police held extensive practice excercises on how to round up a bunch of frail pensioners. There was no need, however, to include excercises on how to disperse a demonstration of businessmen. 

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.