There’s an old Soviet joke that goes: “As long as our bosses pretend to pay us, we’ll pretend to work.” But it’s been 25 years since the Soviet era, and things have changed. Now, with the Russian state hard up for cash due to the collapse of global oil prices as well as sanctions, unpaid employees are staging small protests across the country. The New York Times reports:
In the far east, the teachers went on strike. In central Russia, it was the employees of a metallurgical plant. In St. Petersburg, autoworkers laid down their tools. And at a remote construction site in Siberia, laborers painted their complaints in gigantic white letters on the roofs of their dormitories.
“Dear Putin, V.V.,” the message said. “Four months without pay.”
After months of frustration with an economy sagging under the weight of international sanctions and falling energy prices, workers across Russia are starting to protest unpaid wages and go on strike, in the first nationwide backlash against President Vladimir V. Putin’s economic policies.
The protests have been wildcat actions for the most part, as organized labor never emerged as a strong political or economic force in modern Russia. Under the Soviets, labor unions had been essentially incorporated into management.
The one two punch of the sanctions and the fall in oil prices (and it’s almost certain that the latter is the much bigger factor) have clearly become a political problem for the Putin regime, and the Kremlin knows it: Putin spent an good chunk of time on economic issues at his recent annual marathon presidential telethon, and Prime Minister Medvedev made some remarkably candid comments about the issue on Tuesday, saying that the substantial economic hit is the price Russia has to pay for the annexation of Crimea, but that “we had no other way.”
But it would probably be a mistake to take this as an early sign that the spell has broken. Putin has a very firm grasp on power and he is a smart authoritarian; he has multiple redundant contingency plans for shutting down and diluting protest movements, including huge numbers of counterprotesters ready to be paid off and brought in to confuse the narrative as well as well-trained riot squads. He also has broad control of information, which unlike his Soviet forbears he uses not to put out a single useful official line, but rather to pollute the audience’s mental space until reality itself seems contingent.
Putin has survived a lot already, and while anything’s possible, it’s an error to wish-think that he is going to fall to a public uprising anytime soon. He and his revisionist agenda are a problem that isn’t just going to go away.