Russian Unionists and Activists Attacked

As American automakers prepare to lobby the US government for their share of the $700 billion rescue corporate redistribution fund, GM, who is heading the effort, opened a new $300 million factory in Russia “to compensate for slumping sales in western Europe and North America.”  Carl-Peter Forster, the head of GM in Europe, predicts that the plant, which will employ 981 people, may increase to 1,700 next year.  Such predictions come as autoworkers in the US wonder what will happen to their jobs and pensions if America’s Big Three aren’t deemed to big to save.  Once again the transfer of labor from one country to another should be a reminder of the real face of globalization: to drive down wages and increase corporate profits.

Russia looks to be a perfect place.  It has a skilled labor force and a weak union movement.  It is not only that, in the words of Forster and that “Russia emerged [as a market] long ago.” It is also that international capital can get away with things that it can’t as easily in the United States and Western Europe, i.e. violently attack and threaten union and other social activists activists. I wonder is this is what Medvedev had in mind when he ordered police to be ready to quell any signs of social unrest connected with the economic crisis.

Well the use of violence is exactly what happened to Alexei Etmanov, the chair of the union at the Ford-Vsevolozhsk plant on 8 November.  According to Chto delat,

[Etmanov] parked his car in a lot and headed for his house. On Heroes Street three men jumped in his path and without uttering a word attacked Alexei. They were armed with knuckledusters.

During the tussle, Alexei managed to pull a stun gun from his pocket and get off a shot. The cloak-and-dagger types beat a hot retreat.

The next day his deputy Vladimir Lesik got a phone call warning that the attack wouldn’t be the last. The assailants kept their word.  Etmanov was attacked again by an unknown man wielding a metal pipe on 13 November. Etmanov escape again by firing rubber bullets at the assailant.

This of course is neither the first or the last attack on Russian union activists.  As Chto delat reminds us,

Over the past two years such attacks have happened more than once: labor activists have been savagely beaten in Kaliningrad, Togliatti, and Taganrog. Each time the targets were union activists who challenged the complete sway of their employers and thus all employers who recognize no one’s rights other than their own sovereign right to dictate the work conditions and the lives of “their” workers.

Each time the reprisals followed a heightening of conflict at the respective factories. Despite the fact that police investigators have still not managed to solve any of these crimes, there can hardly be any doubt as to the names of the people who really commissioned them since it is much too obvious whose interests were threatened.

The recent attacks on Etmanov have been followed by several other attacks on Russian social activists.  On 13 November, Sergei Fedotov, the leader of Deceived Land Shareholders, was attacked in the village of Mikhalevo.  Two young men beat Fedotov with baseball bats as he exited his car.  That same day, Mikhail Beketov, a editor-in-chief for Khimkinskaya pravda was beaten half to death.  Beketov has been an outspoken opponent of efforts to prevent the clearing of the Khimki Forest. Finally, since three is the magic number, French sociologist and activist Carine Clement was assaulted in Moscow after she participated in a round table discussion at Bilingua Club.  According to her, two men ran up to her and stabbed her with a syringe containing an unknown substance.  This was the third attack on Clement this month.  She was beaten and mugged two weeks ago near her Moscow home. The second occurred on 12 November when she was verbally assaulted and spat upon by an unknown assailant.  Clement is the director of the Institute of Collective Action in Moscow which fights for housing and labor rights.

Is this part of a growing trend?  Merely the sign of the times?

A statement (translated by Chto delat) from Collective Action in response to the series of attacks explains them as follows:

Recently, criminal attacks against the leaders of trade union and social movements have clearly increased. Among the latest such incidents, we should note the attacks against Carine Clément, a member of the working group and a leader of the Union of Coordinating Councils; Alexei Etmanov, leader of the labor union at Ford-Vsevolozhsk; Mikhail Beketov, leader of the movement to defend the Khimki Forest; and Sergei Fedotov, leader of the deceived land shareholders of the Moscow Region. In addition, a great many activists fighting the infill construction that is happening in all our cities have been attacked. There have been murders, in particular, of antifascist activists.

This is not a random phenomenon, but a clear trend: active citizens who try to restore justice and defend their legal rights are more and more often subjected to brute force. With no other arguments at its disposal, the opposite resorts to criminal methods. While it is clear that in each situation it is a different group of people who commissions these crimes, the overall tendency demonstrates that excellent conditions for the further escalation of this brutal method of “social dialogue” have been created in Russia today. These conditions include lawlessness, the lack of criminal liability for violations of the law by state officials or members of the ruling elite, universal corruption, and the hypercentralization of authority in the absence of any form of control from below. Many cases of “political” attacks on activists have still not been investigated, and the guilty parties not be found, which gives the assailants a sense of impunity and thus provokes further crimes.

We say, Enough!

We demand a maximally thorough and swift investigation of all assaults against all social activists, the transfer of these cases into a separate category, and the creation of a special investigative group within the Ministry of the Interior. We also demand that the public be kept informed about the course of these investigations.

We demand that the assailants be punished according to law whatever high-ranking patrons might support them.

We declare that we will not be intimidated by the method of violence and terror. We will continue our struggle for the social rights of our country’s citizens.

We appeal to the state authorities, who position themselves as the guarantee of “public order,” to make sure that “public order” is not violated by government officials. As it is, all we observe now is the arrests of old women and young activists at various assemblies, demonstrations or strikes, while we hear very little about arrests of corrupt state officials or unscrupulous employers. Down with this politics of double standards!

We declare that, given the situation, we consider it our right to use methods of self-defense and that we will use all possible means to assist and protect our comrades.