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Vedomosti: Novocherkassk-2009

The following is an exclusive translation from Vedomosti about the oncoming crisis of unemployment in Russia, for which the author subsequently got in a lot trouble for having published.

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Scenario: Novocherkassk-2009

Yevgeny Gontmacher

06.11.2008, №210 (2232)

I’m not going to pretend I’ve got my very own version of «Day of the Oprichnik». Vladimir Sorokin — he’s a professional writer, who has already managed to do this brilliantly. I’ve got another genre: I would like to attempt to model a situation that may with ever greater probability be realized somewhere in the depths of Russia already in the nearest future. There can be many concrete causes: from an attempt by the local powers to save money on people (by the way, just a few days ago, people blocked off the main street in Barnaul several times, protesting against an attempt to monetize city benefits) to heating interruptions in the upcoming winter. But the economic crisis, into which Russia is sinking ever deeper, hints at new story lines as well.

Prologue

And so, following chronological order, let’s start with event-

No. 1.A mass layoff of people from the local machine-building (metallurgical,chemical, etc.) city-forming enterprise has taken place in the city ofN-sk. The enterprise’s owner had tried for several months not to allowthis to happen, having sent the most valuable workers on administrativeleave with the payment of 2/3 of their salary and having laid offnearly the entire office staff. But a miracle did not take place:demand for the output of this plant never did rebound to the pre-crisislevel, the money to maintain the remaining cadres also dried up. And sothey had to be laid off, one and all.

Event No. 2. Several thousand unemployed people have suddenlyappeared in N-sk, people who would be ready to take practically anypaid employment (the families have to be fed, after all!), but it turnsout that this too no longer exists. Small business, headily developingat the end of the 80s — in the 90s thanks to the entrepreneurialactiveness of former engineers, designers, and government officials,stopped growing in the 2000s due to the all-powerful administrativepress. As a result, it will not be able to absorb big masses of the newunemployed. The budgetary complexities that have appeared (startingwith low prices for oil and ending with the fact that the plant thathas shut down has stopped paying its taxes to the N-skian treasury)have sharply reduced the number of even the most primitive vacancies inthe budgetary sphere [civil service–Trans.].

Event No. 3. The contracted solvent demand of the population has ledto a crisis in N-skian retail trade. The supermarkets and self-servestores of every variety that had once appeared are closing, giving riseto yet another wave of layoffs. The only ones surviving are smallretain points trading in the most elementary things — bread, cerealgrains, milk, cheap sausage, powdered soup mixes. Lonely old women,standing on the streets, attempt to sell vegetables grown in their owngarden. Flea markets start to appear.

Event No. 4. Total paralysis of the administration of the region andthe mayoralty of N-sk. Officials, trained to fear the loss of warmspots in the «vertical of power», await instructions from above. But atthis time on the federal television channels in the breaks between anice show and «Twisted mirror» they’re reporting «about certain of ourdifficulties, provoked by the American economic crisis».

Event No. 5. Unrest begins among people who have been brought to thepoint of desperation by the loss of even the most primitive lifeprospects, and spontaneously grows into open protest. The inhabitantsof N-sk go to the local mayoralty, demanding of the power that it do atleast something. The confused officials scatter, fearing violence. Thepolice don’t interfere, but neither do they conceal sympathies with the«insurgents», many of whom are neighbors or even relatives.

Event No. 6. People occupy the abandoned government offices.Spontaneous leaders appear, who attempt to guide events into anorganized course. Among the ringleaders there are no local partybosses, for example communists. They are permanently embedded in thepseudo-party system that had formed at the beginning of the 2000s, andhave fallen into the same kind of stupor as the government officialshave. Furthermore: members of «United Russia» are feverishly hidingtheir party cards in secret places (or even burning them on the gasstove).

Event No. 7. Demands are presented to the higher-standing powers –starting with the governor and ending with the president of Russia:«Bring back work!», «Overfed bureaucrats — to answer!». There’s even achance that the slogan «Russia — for Russians!» will be advanced. It isannounced that the building of the mayoralty will remain occupied untilthe fulfillment of these demands.

Event No. 8. The regional governor, having received reports aboutthe events taking place in N-sk, urgently gets in contact with Moscow.The first reports on the disorders are coming through via internet andtelephone into the information space. About them report «Echo Moskvy»and «Liberty». The Federal television channels are silent.

Event No. 9. Moscow does not respond to the inquiry of the governor.In high offices reigns easily explainable perplexity: to go in fornegotiations with one’s own population — this is far from the samething as shouting into the telephone receiver: «Shamil Basayev, do youhear me?!» Apply force? Only it turns out that it doesn’t exist. Thelocal police won’t go against their own townspeople. Send in the OMON?But what if blood is shed? Then the fire could flare up and spreadfurther. All the more so given that the «insurrectionists» have beenbrought to the point of desperation and have nothing to lose. Besidesthis, undesired witnesses have started to arrive in N-sk — journalists.

Event No. 10. After long deliberation, an order is given to thegovernor: to go there and begin negotiations, attempting to talk thepeople into dispersing and going home in exchange for a promise to getto sort out the situation that has been created.

Event No. 11. The governor, understanding that they’re going to firehim anyway for having allowed the situation in N-sk to take place,submits his resignation. The situation in the region becomes moreacute. A new head of administration, hurriedly elected on Moscow’srecommendation by the local legislative assembly, is sent from anotherregion.

Event No. 12. The new governor publicly announces about how one ofthe banks «with state participation» is prepared to give a preferentialcredit for the resumption of the work of the shut down city-formingenterprise in N-sk.

Event No. 13. The inhabitants of N-sk demand that the governorbecome their hostage until the moment of the execution of the promisesgiven by him.

Event No. 14. The same kind of unrest flares up in M-sk…

How the events develop

I wouldn’t want to guess how such local shakeups might end for thesituation of the country as a whole. One thing is clear: the mostlikely variant, when the situation will dissipate — the people willtire of kicking up a furor, all the more so given that the powers aregoing to try to make use of their currently most powerful weapon,money. In the given case–having resumed the work of a knowinglyloss-making, uncompetitive plant, which is in need of a major overhaul,presuming, in particular, letting go a significant part of thepersonnel. But it is obvious that it’s impossible to constantly keepthe N-skian plant afloat at the expense of state injections. Therefore,sooner or later (more likely — sooner), everything will fall back inits place. But to propose something else, besides a decidedlyshort-term reprieve, is something the current state can’t do: it hassunk into corruption, has lost any even remotely serious skills for theprofessional resolution of the problems that have arisen. This can beseen, in particular, from the «horrible» (in the words of VladimirPutin) state of small business and the abhorrent investment climate.Therefore the «it will dissipate» variant in actuality is extremelyinterim in relation to the present fork in the road.

Or, not waiting until the N-skian or other such events become theprologue for an all-Russian shakeup, we’ve got to at last embark upon adecisive modernization of all of Russian life — from the economy and topolitics as well — on principle of the minimization of stateparticipation in social processes, honest competition and freedom ofprivate enterprise.

Or we’re all being sucked into such a crisis, the way out of whichis impossible within the framework of the current constitutional order.

Author — member of the management board of the Institute of Contemporary Development

Photo: A woman attends to a child asRussian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin takes questions during anationally televised town-hall style session in Moscow. (AFP/Alexander Nemenov)