“What We Need Is an Effective Manager But What We Got Is the Olympics, Soccer and War”

Clouds of Poverty Department

Russians’ Anxiety Swells as Oil Prices Collapse
From: New York Times, By NEIL MacFARQUHARJAN. 22, 2016


(Click to enlarge) Workers at a Sbarro restaurant in Moscow protested, claiming they had not been paid in months. Credit James Hill for The New York Times

KRASNODAR, Russia — Last year was bad enough financially for Sergei and Victoria Titov, both music teachers getting along in years. Her government salary was slashed by one third, and rampant inflation put some basic groceries like eggplant and cucumbers out of reach.

Then came Jan. 1, and the abrupt decision by the regional government here in Krasnodar, the capital of Russia’s southern agricultural heartland, to chop transportation subsidies for older Russians, forcing the couple to limit their trolley rides.

Indignant and fearing worse amid Russia’s accelerating economic problems, Sergei joined an unauthorized demonstration last week by hundreds of older Russians who gathered under the bronze statue of a Cossack horseman on the main square here and chanted, “Return our benefits!”

They were not alone, neither in Krasnodar nor across this vast nation, where illegal protests and wildcat strikes are erupting with increasing frequency by truckers, teachers, factory workers and all sorts of Russians facing steep government cutbacks because of plummeting revenue from oil and gas.(…)

(…) The 100 or so workers at the giant Seydin Machine Tool Factory, once the pride of the city during the Soviet era, have not seen a paycheck for a year and recently received layoff notices. They, too, have on occasion gathered in the main square to demand their back pay. The workers “have to take to the streets!” they wrote in an open letter to Mr. Putin.

In a tradition dating from Soviet times, most firms, and especially state-run companies, tend to cut hours or stop paying salaries rather than fire people to diminish the chances for social unrest.(…)

(…) Many analysts expect people to do what Russians always do in hard times — hunker down, tend to their vegetable plots and wait it out. Others say that Russians have gotten used to a higher standard of living and that they will protest losing it.

The government allows street protests over issues like lost wages, but its distinctly authoritarian edge emerges in the face of political action.

So far, local governments have reacted lightly to the protests. The governor of the Krasnodar Region restored transportation passes for the older Russians receiving the lowest pensions.

Some residents, like Mr. Titov, groused that the wealth was being wasted on prestige projects rather than helping ordinary people. Still, he does not expect Russians to sour on Mr. Putin any time soon. In nearby Sochi, Russia spent around $50 billion to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, and a similar construction juggernaut is building stadiums nationwide for the 2018 World Cup.

“The Russian people got what they wanted, a czar ruling the country,” he said of Mr. Putin. “What we need is an effective manager, but what we got is the Olympics, soccer and war.”

Alexandra Odynova contributed reporting from Krasnodar, and Ivan Nechepurenko from Moscow.

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