Oil prices creep to $100 a barrel is “fueling one of the biggest transfers of wealth in history” reports the Washington Post. And the cash windfall, which is estimated at $4 to $5 billion more than five years ago is filling the coffers of oil export nations, while threatening social unrest, high prices, inflation, and economic stagnation in consumer nations. All of this signals that there is “no end in sight to the redistribution of more than 1 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.” And who is getting a slice of this 1 percent? None other than the ruling elites of international cankers like Iran and Venezuela, US outpost Saudi Arabia, and of course Russia, among others. The increase in cash into the first two have certainly increased the challenges to the US. The flush of oil revenue will inevitably allow Iran to defy American efforts to curb the former’s nuclear ambitions and growing hegemony in Mesopotamia. The rising prices has give Hugo Chavez more muscle in promoting his “Bolivarian Revolution” in his own country and dole out patronage to his Latin American compadres.
The final results even higher oil prices for Russia remains unclear, especially as the country faces Duma and Presidential elections. But Russia’s oil wealth has already allowed it to bounce back from its dismal years of financial crisis. Oil has allowed Russia to move from a debtor nation to possessing “the third largest gold and hard currency reserves in the world, about $425 billion” says the Post. If there is one fundamental key to Vladislav Surkov’s concept of “sovereign democracy”, it is the bubblin’ crude.
Russia dependency on oil exports can have its long term economic, political, and ecological consequences. The consolidation of the oil industry under the Kremlin is already well known. And some see its economic dependency on crude as an omen for Russia’s future deterioration.
Less talked about, however, are the ecological costs. Especially considering today’s news. First is a report of how five meter high waves smashed the Volgoneft-139 oil tanker in half outside the Kerch Strait. 1,300 tons of oil are now spilling into the Azov and Black Seas. Two crew members were rescued. Fifteen remain missing.
Second is sinking of a dry cargo ship near the Port of Kavkaz. It was carrying 2000 tons of sulfur. The nine crew members abandoned ship on the life raft and are safe. We can’t say the same for the environment around both accidents.
Oleg Mitvol, the head of Russia’s environmental agency Rosprirodnadzor, tacitly admitted that the spills are “a serious environmental accident that will require a large amount of work.” Russian environmental activists were more forthcoming. Vladimir Slivyak of Ekozashchita said that the spill was “a major ecological catastrophe,” adding that “the pollution that has taken place will have to be cleaned up for a long time to come and the consequences will be felt for a year or even more.” Other Russian environmentalists echoed his sentiment.
The Kerch spill pales in comparison to the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, which released 34,000 tons of oil into waters off of Alaska. Or to the 287.000 ton spill when the Atlantic Empress collided with another ship in 1979. And nothing compares to the 800,000 tons Saddam Hussein deliberately released 800,000 tons of oil in the Persian Gulf in 1991 as a war tactic. Still, the Kerch oil spill and the Kavkaz oil dump are signs of more long term costs of being economically dependent on natural resource exports.
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By Sean — 10 years ago
As regular readers can see, my blogging has been sparse over the last few weeks. I just finished a three week teaching blitz of a Western Civilization course at Santa Monica High School. The class was part of Santa Monica Community College’s dual enrollment program which allows high school students to take classes for college credit. The class was everyday, 8-11 a.m. I haven’t woken up so early since I worked in a stove factory over fifteen years ago.
Rushing through 500 years of history has never been so daunting. The class was enjoyable and the students remarkably bright. One thing that struck me about the high school is how it resembled a prison. I guess Gilles Deleuze was on to something when he wrote that modernity initiates,
The organization of vast spaces of enclosure. The individual never ceases passing from one closed environment to another, each having its own laws: first the family; then the school (“you are no longer in your family”); then the barracks (“you are no longer at school”); then the factory; from time to time the hospital; possibly the prison, the preeminent instance of the enclosed environment. It’s the prison that serves as the analogical model: at the sight of some laborers, the heroine of Rossellini’s Europa ’51 could exclaim, “I thought I was seeing convicts.”******
So teaching was the main reason why blogging has been sparse. It will continue to be so. On Thursday, I leave for Israel for two weeks. I’m hoping to do so research for a few articles on the Russian diaspora there. My big hope is to meet up with some Israeli neo-Nazis for an article for the newly relaunched eXile Online. (Yes, if you haven’t already heard, the eXile is back in virtual form. Mark has left Russia and word is the eXile is going to be less Russia focused. Look for its verbal assassins to set their sites on more victims.) If the Israeli Nazi thing doesn’t pan out, I’m sure my travels will present a number of other topics. So stay tuned.
Though I haven’t been keeping up with the Russian news as well as I normally do, there have been a number of interesting stories that have appeared. Some of them are directly Russia related, others are bit tangential.
First article to catch my notice was a report on the exhumation of a mass grave containing around 300 bodies in an asphalt plant in Chechnya. The grave was discovered in 2000 but wasn’t uncovered until now. The site dates to the Second Chechen War and according to the report “likely contains civilian victims of an attack by Russian forces.” The report of this mass grave follows the announcement a week earlier of another one found in Grozny containing an estimated 800 corpses.
Open Democracy has published several articles on Russia as part of their collaboration with Polit.ru. Football fans should check out Lyubov Borusyak’s “Russia, Football and Patriotism.” Granted connecting football to patriotism, or what I’d rather call nationalism, is not new. Sport is a uniting force and it is no surprise that in Russia’s so-called “age of stability” sport is making a national comeback. Russia now appears as a winning nation to many of its citizens, and this is only reinforced by the fact that its teams have some victories under their belts. But as Borusyak points out, its not just that Russian teams are winning. In fact, the ultimate crown often alludes them. This however doesn’t dampen the link between national enthusiasm and sport. Just the opposite actually. As she notes, “There are two kinds of patriotic rhetoric. On the one hand, our people are winning because Russia is ‘rising’. On the other, our people are losing because the whole world is against us. Until 2008,the second discourse predominated, as there were not many successes. But this year the situation changed.”*****
With much of the world reeling from capital’s cyclical curse of overproduction, speculation bubbles, or to put it more kindly, “market corrections,” it begs the question of Russia’s economic prognosis. Unlike the American economy, the Russian economy has not experienced shocks of similar magnitude. It’s banks aren’t collapsing, being bailed out or raided by the state. Corporate profits aren’t taking a hit. Announcements of layoffs, buyouts, and wage slashing aren’t ubiquitous. Like so often, American capitalists who love to spit on the state are the first to run to it for a handout. It all proves once again that its socialism for the rich and capitalism for everyone else. As Robert Borosage reminds us, Wall Street’s “losses are socialized; their profits are pocketed.”
This is not to say that Russia’s economy is all bread and circuses for the average Russian. Inflation is a particular bugaboo that is not just being fueled by high oil prices and general global inflation in commodities. Russian inflation more comes from the fact that, as Dmitri Travin notes, “millions of people, from oligarchs to cleaners really are benefiting from oil revenues.” Of course, the spread of petrodollars contains the seeds of its own destruction. Especially when you consider its effects on manufacturing. Travin writes,
From the point of view of manufacturing,this wealth is a terrible curse. An expensive ruble makes the goods we manufacture more expensive by comparison with imported goods. If the Central Bank does not stop the ruble from rising, many Russian producers will lose their competitive advantage and cease to exist. And along with them, many jobs will disappear. GDP will stop growing, and parts of the country will be plunged into crisis. In the long term, the Russian people’s unexpected wealth will turn into poverty.
What God giveth, God (might) taketh away. Again, the inevitability of overproduction is a real bitch to tame.
The losses of global economic crisis are not equal. There are winners and losers. Take General Motors, for example. GM executives plan to make some “difficult decisions” in regard to its American workforce. This includes, according to the New York Times, “a 20 percent reduction in payroll for salaried workers, elimination of health care for older white-collar retirees, and suspension of G.M.’s annual stock dividend of $1 a share.” GM, like most car companies, are reeling from the slide in the American market. No one wants their big gas guzzling SUVs and two-ton trucks anymore. As a result, GM plans to make $10 billion in cost cuts. And where will these cuts come from? Why labor and benefits of course.
At the same time GM is slashing labor costs in the United States, it’s looking to expand in Russia. GM is currently in negotiations to up its production in Russia, where its market share has increased by 2 percent over the last year. Given that Russia has a skilled, cheap workforce it’s ripe for exploitation. The average wage for a Russian autoworker is about $1000 a month with few, if any, benefits. An American autoworker makes an average of $5000 a month and that’s if you don’t include benefits. With GM sales rising coupled with the benefit of slashing labor costs, its no surprise that they and many other automakers can’t get to Russia fast enough.
Russian and American autoworkers know the score. Class war is heating up in both countries. In the States, auto union are fighting against the “two-tier wage system” which looks to slash staring wages by half. In Russia, autoworkers are increasingly understanding their labor power and are putting collective pressure on automakers. This pressure is expected to grow. As Aleksey Etmanov, the leader of a Ford auto union in St. Petersburg, said in a recent interview,
The creation of trade unions will increase. Even now there is simply a wave of new trade unions appearing. Today in our trade union there are approximately 1000 people, this is half of the workers of plant. In Taganrog the works manager hides in order not to obtain information about the creation of the trade union. Certainly, the pressure everywhere is being stepped up, and repression from the side of employers is increasing, they are sacking activists. Nowhere do the employers want to live according to the law (including Russia) but we are fighting back. In Toyota in the Petersburg area the manager, who, by the way, went there from “Ford”, is himself putting the workers in such conditions that we are confident, that very soon there will a trade union there too.
We are actively participating in the setting up of new trade unions in other factories of our industry, and we are developing inter-district unions of the Russian automobile industry, which, according to our plans, will be linked up as members of an organization covering all the car factories of the country, and we think we can do this towards the middle of next year. The Ford trade unionists are the most experienced elements in this association, and without us, probably the association would not have appeared. But all over the world the car workers trade unions are the strongest. The joint-combine committee draws nearer…
It is clear that the strength of the union is not only in the individual enterprise but is also in all the surrounding workplaces. Therefore we want to be combined with other trade unions, both with the Russian and in other countries. In particular, we closely collaborate with the international association of metalworkers. Now our interests can also be represented abroad. For example, when we struck, our American friends came to examine the headquarters of company “Ford” in Detroit…
Finally, its not just Russian autoworkers who are organizing. So are Russian prisoners. ON July 6 over 100 former Russian political prisoners gathered for the First Congress of Political Prisoners in Moscow. The result was the formation of the Union of Prisoners, which in the words of Edward Limonov, “will gather, not only political prisoners, but will defend the rights of all prisoners and ex-prisoners.” Limonov also proposes the creation of A Day of Prisoners for September 14. He also plans on turning his National Bolshevik Party toward organizing prisoners. Limonov clearly knows his history. Prison is indeed a transformative revolutionary experience. Any bonafide Old Bolshevik did a stint in prison or exile. Prison hardened the Bolshevik soul and spirit. Apparently many of Limonov’s young charges are undergoing the same process. As Limonov says of Aleksei Makarov, who was recently released from prison. “Aleksei wasn’t yet 18 when he was arrested two years ago. He grew greatly in prison.”
If the Natsbol’s slogan is indeed “Yes, to death!” then nothing will harden that political will more than prison.
Russian prisons are of course nightmares. They always have been and continue to be so. For a run down on the conditions in prisons and the treatment of prisoners in Russia, I recommend checking out Robert Amsterdam’s excellent coverage of the issue. In particular, check out Grigory Pasko’s three part series “Life Behind Bars.”
By Sean — 3 years ago
For all intents and purposes, Russia’s official unemployment rate remains quite low for an economy in recession. The Russian Statistical Agency reports that the official unemployment rate in October-November went from 5.5 percent to 5.8 percent. This is still a far from the rate in February 2009 when official unemployment hit a high of 9.4 percent. The recession of 2008-2010, when GDP in Russia fell from 2.65 percent in January 2008 to -3.53 percent in April 2009, continues to overshadow Russia’s current economic woes. The crucial difference between then and now is that there’s no rebound of global oil prices in sight, sanctions constrict borrowing Western capital, and the Russian government has chosen austerity as a means to climb out of the doldrums.
Despite the low numbers, unemployment in Russia is subject to a myriad of concealments. There’s the standard measurement problem where unemployment figures only record people registered as unemployed. Many people in Russia, like in the US, slip through the statistical cracks.
Nor does the federal unemployment rate reveal the variation of regional unemployment where the variation can range from a low of 1.4 percent in St. Petersburg to a high of 30.7 percent in Ingushetia.
But unemployment is also increasingly hidden by long term unpaid mandatory furloughs. Workers are technically employed. They are just not working. Or getting paid. As Moskovskii komsomolets explains:
Hidden unemployment is one of the most important indicators. In a crisis, many businesses are compelled to place employees on long-term unpaid leave and save money for employee severance. While such official reductions of staff do not impact the unemployment level, it actually only makes the situation is worse. Because they are not technically laid off, it is impossible [for workers] to register as unemployed and receive any state assistance. The artificial creation of positive unemployment data helps maintain the authorities’ approval ratings. Currently, the number of people in unemployed limbo is much greater than last year.
Another problem plaguing workers is wage arrears. As this chart shows wage arrears have almost doubled in 2015:
As the article below shows, all this talk of dry statistics are the stuff of a cold-hearted social scientist. The fetishism of figures elide the humanism of Tatiana’s story as a furloughed worker from the AvtoVAZagregat parts factory in Togliatti and the effort by her fellow workers to recoup 52.5 million rubles ($743,200) in back pay from their employer.
How people on unpaid furloughs spend their time.
By Natalia Fomina
Special Correspondent for Novaya gazeta in Samara
You can talk to a PhD of whatever social science and hear all about economic instability, the financial crisis, the fall of the ruble, the GDP and government spending. And you can meet people who find themselves on six months of unpaid leave. Only they will talking about something else . . .
Until recently, AvtoVAZagregat was one of the largest parts supply factories in Togliatti. At the beginning of July 2015, AvtoVAZagregat stopped production. Since June, two and a half thousand of the company’s employees have not been paid a salary. On September 15, this fact provoked a criminal case under Article 2, Section 145.1 of the Criminal Code (The failure to pay full wages for more than two months out of self-serving or other personal interests).
Tatiana is one of those who has not been paid. She’s 52 years old. She’s worked at the AvtoVAZagregat plant as a quality inspector since 1995, that is for 20 years. She’s worked the last twelve in the assembly shop. It’s in the assembly shop where the car seats we’re accustomed to take shape. They undergo pre-cutting work, packaging, handling, palleting, assembly, sealing, inspection and labeling. Tatiana worked as an inspector. Until they stopped paying her. No, she still went to work for another month, and would have gone longer but they started to remove equipment from the factory and there was nothing left to inspect.
We meet on Revolution Square in Samara behind the Lenin monument where you can see the historic building of the regional court where the young Vladimir Ulyanov served as a lawyer. We go to the awful, but cheap café Zhili-Byli, where it smells of wet floors, cheap perfume and cabbage.
“Oh, good it’s warm!” Tatiana says and refuses to order food. “I don’t spend my own money,” I say decisively speaks. “It’s a business expense!”
Tatiana smiles. She decides to eat a hamburger patty and drink tea. As we wait for our order she says:
“I think things could have been different if we still lived in a house. With my husband and mother. I would have really worked the garden. You can not only live well from it but you can also regularly earn a living from a vegetable garden. We have women who breed ducks, this is also an option. And then I wouldn’t care for this factory and its manager. But our house burned down more than ten years ago,” she continues after a measured pause, “I buried my mother, I lost my husband.”
I’m silent. When we agreed to meet, Tatiana sent her picture. There she stood just near the once-upon-a-time-gingerbread house that is now lopsided on both sides. Sitting next to the elegant elderly lady is a tall man in a vest.
“And . . your husband . . . too?” I ask hesitantly: it’s awkward to specify such things. “I lost him.” This could mean anything.
“Not exactly,” Tatiana reassures me, “It’s not you. My husband’s in prison.”
The tea arrives. And the burger cutlets. Tatiana saws off a piece with her fork and continues: “We celebrated the New Year . . . my mother lived with us then, where could she go with a fractured hip, she slept in the kitchen. We sat, drank, I put out hors d’oeuvres. Well, we sat and sat, mother on crutches, it was a good thing she held her tongue, but when she opened her mouth, it was the same over and over: you cock sucking bastards, you cock sucking bastards. I don’t even know who she’s going on about. Then we went for a walk with her, there were firecrackers and everything. We hung around for a long time, like frozen icicles, and drank more vodka to warm up in the fresh air. We heard the fire engine sirens. Who knew it was for us. Of course, at first, we didn’t think it was our house burning. On the contrary, I thought there was some bonfire through the passageway. We came back and our house was gone, a horrible stench of smoke rose from the ruins and a crowd of people—neighbors, firefighters, and police. Not a single cup or spoon. Or blankets. It all burned.”
A manager sits at the next table with office workers. Young people dressed in suits discuss their annual bonus. A 100,000 rubles to some, 200,000 to others. Tatiana listens, furrows her brow, and continues the story: “Well, mom was burned alive then. She didn’t have time to get out of the house and open the door. Her aluminum crutches were far from her, they were found in the kitchen, she crawled to them but didn’t make it. And there aren’t any bars on all the first floor windows.”
The waitress asks, do you want anything else? Tatiana looks at me inquisitively. I ask for a brandy. Tatiana raises an eyebrow. Waitress quickly bangs down a decanter and two glasses on the table.. The oily brandy splashes around in the decanter kind of like crude oil.
“Well, then the firemen said: “It was arson.” I still don’t believe it was my husband. So, he always disliked mother. But to do this! ”
Tatiana falls silent. Then she says: “I wouldn’t have pulled through it if I hadn’t been working. It was in 2003 and things were very good at the factory. You probably don’t remember, we just adopted a new quality standard, the ISO 9000, it was nearly the first time in Russia. We won a Swiss medal. “For impeccable business reputation.” We received the “Russian National Olympics” award in all areas. I won’t lie, they paid us well then. And not just during working time! A standardized working day takes up time. There’s the morning when you go out to the factory. Then there’s a lunch break, when you eat soup and a main course in the canteen. There’s the evening when you go past the guard’s desk, through the shops and back. All the same people are on the minibus, since day in and day out we always take longer shifts, especially me, why me? I don’t have a home or family, I lived in a in a dorm and in public housing, and only after seven years I finally got the insurance money [from the fire] and was able to buy an apartment. And now I live alone in an apartment. When you have nowhere to go and nowhere to come back to in the evening, it’s hardly anything. It’s not even a new life, it’s no life whatsoever.
In October, the Samara Regional Arbitration Court will consider six companies’ requests to be included in AvtoVAZagregat’s bankruptcy. Between July and October over fifty lawsuits worth more than 340 million rubles have been filed against the company.
“My husband still has three years left on his sentence. Yeah, I visit him, as it should be. They give relatives long term visitation. We’re not divorced. I’ve told you that I don’t believe that it was him, right? Tatiana twirls an empty glass in her hands.
I nod as Tatiana speaks.
“I don’t know what happened to me back then. Reactive psychosis, says the doctor at the psychiatric hospital. Thankfully, everything is alright now. I’m as healthy as a bull. In September, I got a job in a florist shop arranging bouquets. I should say it’s awful work. The shop is cold because the flowers love it. There’s ice water in the planters. Look at my fingers!”
Tatiana shows me her hands. Red fingers jump out from under the wooden table. Her nails are cut at the roots. There’s a watch with a leather strap on her left wrist. She takes the glass and empties it in a single gulp.
“Honestly, I don’t think they’ll pay us our back pay. There are women at VAZ trying to but it’s not likely. Our women trying to rebuild at VAZ, but it’s not likely. There’s nowhere for them to go and next year they’ll start a four day work week.” she says between sips of watery tea.
An hour later I close Tatiana’s taxi door for her ride from Samara to Togliatti. It’s 300 rubles a person and you need to wait for four before leaving. On closer inspection, the driver is Tatiana’s former co-worker—a mechanic in the AvtoVAZagregat welding shop and has been out of work for six months. “A welder for life,” he says and promises to drive Tatiana for free. As one of his own.
According to the latest figures, AvtoVAZagregat owes more than 1,400 employees a total of 52.5 million rubles. As of today, the prosecutor’s office has filed over 905 lawsuits on behalf of employees. “As the work proceeds, about twenty claims go to court a day. By the organization’s count, 16.5 million rubles have been given out to employees. In addition, there are126 more enforcement proceedings at the bailiff,” reports the regional prosecutor’s press service. In early September, there were repeated rallies in support of the workers in Togliatti and Samara.
By Sean — 11 years ago
This just came from the Associated Press via CNN. Today, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said of Russia:
“In any country, if you don’t have countervailing institutions, the power of any one president is problematic for democratic development,” Rice told reporters after meeting with human-rights activists.
“I think there is too much concentration of power in the Kremlin. I have told the Russians that. Everybody has doubts about the full independence of the judiciary. There are clearly questions about the independence of the electronic media and there are, I think, questions about the strength of the Duma,” said Rice, referring to the Russian parliament.
While certainly true, I can’t help wonder that while Rice denounces the Kremlin’s power, she can’t help be a little jealous of Putin. Especially considering that the American Executive has moved in the same direction over the last decade and a half. Keep glaring into that mirror Condi. Often what we denounce is what we secretly desire.
As for a recommended reading tip on the architectural and political isolation of Bush see Todd S. Purdum’s the excellent “Inside Bush’s Bunker.”