Which way for Russian workers' movement?
Ilya B is an executive member of Socialist Resistance, the Russian section of the Committee for a Workers' International led by Peter Taaffe's Socialist Party. In Paris for last weekend's ESF conference, he spoke to Peter Manson
Can you tell me how the state reacted following the return to Russia of comrades who attended the ESF in Florence? Vladimir Vorobiev, an activist belonging to Zashchita, the Defence of Labour trade union, was part of the Russian contingent. A week after we came back from Florence, long articles appeared in two national papers. They claimed Vladimir Vorobiev is an extremist and that Defence of Labour is an extremist trade union. They said he wants to organise revolt, smash up his city in Siberia and was plotting with anti-globalists to assassinate the governor. The main object of attack was Vorobiev, but the articles also attacked Oleg Shein, who is a member of parliament and leader of Defence of Labour. They claimed he was abusing his position as an MP to promote extremism. A few days later Vorobiev was 'invited for discussions' with the Russian secret service. They said they suspected he was involved in dangerous activity and demanded to know who his associates were. They asked him about Florence and about the organisers of the Russian contingent. We suspect that this was part of the preparations for a trial against Vladimir and other trade unionists from his city. It is likely that the articles and the action against him were inspired by Aman Tuleev, the governor of this area. Tuleev was a prominent member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and was elected as a 'red governor'. Zashchita and some left organisations have rallied to Vorobiev's defence. How would you describe the situation facing the working class movement in Russia? Over a year ago parliament voted into existence a new labour court, which is very strongly anti-worker and anti-trade union. This labour court registers trade unions and as a result the rights of the representatives of real trade unions are gutted. There has been a very important trade union campaign in opposition to this neoliberal government offensive against the interests of the working class. There is also the question of the reform of housing provision. In the Soviet Union more than half of the rent for a flat was subsidised by the state. The main idea of the reform is 100% payment by the tenant. This is the first step towards privatisation, along with similar moves in other spheres of public provision. Then there is the question of the registration of political parties, which makes the creation of legal parties able to stand in elections much more difficult. For example, the standing of independents in a particular area is impossible, because candidates must be representatives of all-Russia political parties that have 10,000 members and at least 200 in more than half of the county's regions. This is very democratic, however, compared to Kazakhstan, where 50,000 members are required. The population of Russia is 150 million, but Kazakhstan has only 14 million people. So what is the situation for the left? I am in Socialist Resistance, a Marxist organisation which is part of the CWI. We have a few hundred members organised in six cities in Russia, and we have groups in the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Moldova. To the left of the Communist Party there are a number of crisis-ridden Stalinist organisations, such as the Communist Workers Party. Their membership is quite old and incapable of responding to people's real problems. Their only term of reference is the Soviet Union and the great country that it was. None of the Stalinist groups have any answers to the wave of neoliberal reforms and certainly cannot present a complete socialist programme in defence of the living standards and democratic rights of the working class or on the war in Chechnya. All they can do is repeat that all their problems arise from the collapse of the Soviet Union. That is one side of the story, but some of these problems were created in Soviet times. You cannot explain everything on that basis. Then there is the new Russian Labour Party, created on the basis of an agreement by different trade unions on the question of the labour court at the beginning of this year. The main force behind it was Oleg Shein and Zashchita. We believe this is a very important process to take part in. But its main problem is that it is based absolutely on the trade unions and concerns itself only with labour rights. It does not look to other questions, such as the democratic crisis, war and the political system itself. Ours is the biggest Trotskyist group, but there are several others, some of whom are quite sectarian and so did not take part in the Labour Party. Some think that the Communist Party was a traditional workers' party and try to work with that milieu, without much success. Apart from our organisation, there is - or was - Ted Grant's group, which mainly worked in the Communist Party and Young Communist League. The SWP had a very small group in the early 90s, but no longer. There is also a small, but active group linked to the LAT in Brazil. Although we work with the Labour Party, we don't see this as our main direction. I think the future of the workers' movement in Russia lies not only with new groupings like the left wing of the trade union movement, but with youth groups and from the different protest movements, such as that against the criminal reform. In April there was a big rally against the criminal reform in Voronezh. There were 50,000 people and this was the biggest demonstration in the whole history of this city. We consider our work in the anti-globalist and anti-capitalist movement very important. In our work in the anti-globalist movement we try to unite all these elements who are protesting against the various aspects of capitalism - the labour court, criminal reform, democratic rights, the environment are all interconnected. We were one of the instigators of Attac in Russia about a year ago - Attac France paid for my trip this weekend - and we are now seeing some success in this work. I understand that Attac in Russia is really just the revolutionary left. Yes, we set it up. But the use of the name has good points, because it is the only well known anti-globalist organisation in Russia. That's why it's good to unite with other groups in this process. I believe you are the only CWI member here in Paris for the ESF conference. Yes. But I think this is a question for each national organisation. If they see it's important for them, then they take part in the process. But surely there ought to be a common position on the building of a European movement? You yourself have put forward constructive proposals and seem very keen on the ESF process. It's the position of the CWI to actively take part in the anti-globalist movement in order to put forward socialist ideas, but the question of participating in the organisation of the European Social Forum depends on the national situation of each section. What do you think of the discussions of the weekend? Well, there was the old discussion about the role of political parties and whether they should be allowed to take part. A lot of people actively presented such a position and there was a clear weakening of the more rightwing, reformist people on this question. They were no longer openly against it - they said we need to discuss it. After Florence it is clear that political parties are a very important part of the movement, which is growing on the basis of the main political issues facing the world. So the movement needs to discuss political perspectives and I am glad progress was made here on the question of parties.