Building a left-wing opposition in Russia

BORN IN 1970, a history teacher by profession, Oleg has participated in the workers’ movement in Russia Shein throughout the 1990s with an internationalist perspective. A member of the Astrakhan regional council, Oleg was elected as an independent workers’ deputy (MP) to the Duma (Russian parliament) in 1999. On a recent tour of Europe organised by International Solidarity with Workers in Russia, he spoke to The Socialist.
Tell us about your work and what you hope to get from this visit.

IN 1995 the independent Left trade union in Russia called ‘Defence’ a Workers Trade Union was established and in 1999 we began to build a Movement for a Workers’ Party which is an attempt to unite various Marxist groups in Russia under a common platform through workers’ struggle.

We believe we cannot win in Russia unless we establish very good contacts with workers in other countries who too are suffering under the same capitalist conditions.

What has capitalist restoration meant for the lives of working class people in the former Soviet Union?

THERE HAS been a catastrophic decrease in living standards and the destruction of access to good education and health care. Significant sections of industry have been destroyed and there’s mass unemployment which has added to the ‘de-proletarianisation’ of the population.

This will result in the drastic reduction in the budget of the Russian state and the lowering of social services. Last spring 26 social programmes had to be cut.

Also, the government is trying to raise the retirement age. At present, women in Russia retire at 55 men at 60, the government wants to raise the retirement age for both sexes to 65. In Kazakhstan this is already the situation.

They also want to impose a system of payment for local telephone calls (at the moment local telephone calls are free).

The government is imposing taxes on soldiers and on other categories of workers who up to now have been exempt tax. This is a naked programme of ruling class self-interest. You can see this in the imposition of a flat tax where both workers and bankers pay 13% despite the huge disparities in incomes.

Putin is centralising state power. How has this increased authoritarianism affected workers rights?

RIGHT NOW we are starting to see the end of the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ period of the growth of capitalism in Russia.

The coming to power of Vladimir Putin and the beginning of an authoritarian state is a defining moment in this transition period.

Since 1994 there have been attempts by the bourgeoisie to impose a new labour code, to break the rights of workers under the existing law. The new code will make it easier to sack workers and liquidates all the rights of trade unions to organise.

Matters came to a head during the government of Sergei Kiriyenko [1998] who was a servant of international finance capital. The IMF and World Bank demanded that Kiriyenko change the labour laws.

The new code establishes a 12-hour working day – a four hour increase! It eliminates maternity leave. It establishes individual employment and allows for the collection political information about workers.

Workers have become used to striking and fighting back against their employers (winning about 95% of strikes and about 60% of actions brought before the courts) so now the bourgeoisie want to change the legal structure under which labour is regulated.

Trade union protests delayed the new labour law which will be reintroduced into Parliament in December. We are doing all kinds of protest actions then and we are counting on the support of workers in the West.

What are the prospects for advancing the struggles of the working class? In particular the development of a new workers party.

RIGHT NOW there is no working-class political party in Russia that defends workers interests. All the bourgeois parties (and I include the KPRF – the Communist Party of the Russian Federation) are discredited.

The active working-class movements in Russia today are generally of a socialist character. The union [Defence] includes socialist trade unions, left-wing trade unions but also other independent trade unions.

While there is every possibility of forming a workers party in Russia, we also have barriers.

One problem is the collapse of the bourgeois-democratic state that had allowed us some political leeway. Another problem is the relative weakness at an organisational level of our movements as well as problems of lack of resources.

Since 1990 [collapse of the former Soviet Union] there has formed in Russia a class of people who want to live free. These people have gone through many experiences – strikes, blockades, pickets, railway blockades.

Our group has set itself the task of uniting these people and giving them the tools to fight for and liberate themselves from capitalism and to found a society based on equality.