Socialists travel thousands of kilometres for vital discussions
Socialists from as far apart as Khabarovsk (on Russia’s Pacific Coast) to Odessa (on the Ukraine’s Black Sea coast) attended the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) congress in Moscow, last weekend (25 – 27 February). Participants gathered from throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States or CIS – the loose federation that replaced the former Soviet Union.
Meeting on a boat on a frozen canal, the delegates and visitors from Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Moldova discussed political perspectives for the entire CIS and how to build socialist groups in their areas. The congress was a major logistical exercise, given the enormous distances traveled by delegates and the low wages of most of those attending. The visitor from Khabarovsk, in Russia’s ‘Far East’, bordering Japan, flew for 11 hours to get to Moscow. Delegates from Kazakhstan spent three days on a train from Kyrgyzstan after their own congress there (see last week’s report on socialistworld.net). The Moscow CWI members had produced an excellent 65-page congress brochure for all those attending.
Messages of solidarity from CWI sections across the world were read out at the beginning of the congress, including from Brazil, Portugal, Ireland, Austria, Sweden and South Africa. For many who were new to the CWI, this was a well-received example of the internationalism of the CWI.
The main discussions
The first session on the international situation set the scene for the main debate on the CIS itself. It covered many aspects of the international situation including the world economy, China, trade unions, Latin America, the Middle East – especially Iraq – and Islamic movements internationally and was introduced by the CWI representative.
Rob Jones introducing the session on the CIS, spoke about the ‘colour revolutions’ of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan where the hopes of millions of people have been dashed. A new set of pro-capitalist politicians clambered to power using mass movements fighting for democratic rights and a better life. They have proceeded to carry out cuts on workers’ living standards and the economies have declined still further. The experience of these ‘Rose’, ‘Orange’ and ‘Tulip’ revolutions brings home the need for workers and youth to form independent workers’ organisations to fight the capitalist politicians and the bosses. Rob also pointed to the major struggles between competing imperialist powers in the region for control, influence and profits, in particular in Central Asia.
Many points were raised in the discussion, including Putin’s increasing authoritarianism facing little organised opposition from either ‘neo-liberals’ or ‘communists’. When unofficial social protest movements have broken out, often spontaneously, the CWI in Russia has organised impressive public demonstrations.
Russia’s ‘Far East’
On Russia’s Pacific Coast, there is also considerable opposition to Putin. People see money and resources going to far-away Moscow but little coming back. China and Japan have a big impact on the economy regionally. Many factories have shut down and people are often reduced to trading on the streets to survive. Some cities and towns are so de-industrialised they have become largely depopulated. Khabarovsk has big environmental problems following the pollution of its water by a chemical spill in neighbouring China. The Orthodox Church has a big influence in the area and those wielding state power in the region are often divided and weak. Mass opposition could develop quickly and the CWI grow rapidly in that situation.
In Vladivostock, also in Russia’s Far East, there have been angry demonstrations against regional bosses. There was an incident where firefighters could not get to a burning building to rescue public sector workers because big, expensive cars of rich bureaucrats blocked the road. Twelve people died in the fire, provoking an explosion of popular anger. There are also dangerous, reactionary moods in the region as shown when Putin recently transferred some small islands on the Pacific Coast from Russian rule to China, local politicians in Vladivostock whipped up anti-Chinese sentiments amongst the population. Chinese immigrant workers in the city live in ghettos and are prey to physical attacks.
In the Caucasus, Putin’s crude attempts to manipulate and control the local elites and governments has only deepened people’s sense of alienation from the local powers and social protests have erupted in several of the republics. In war-torn Chechnya, over 90% of people live in poverty. Putin has tried to ‘force out terrorism’ from the country but has only helped spread it to neighbouring states, as was seen in the 2004 Beslan school massacre.
A struggle taking place within the Nazarbayev regime in Kazakhstan shows it also is not as strong as is often portrayed. Ainur Kurmanov explained that the working people gain nothing from the huge oil and gas revenues and opposition is growing from youth and workers, especially since Nazarbayev announced the closure of 30 universities last year. But the ‘independent’ unions are not playing the role they should for workers’ struggles. The leaderships of many have been literally bought off by the regime.
The CWI in Kazakhstan – ‘SotsSpor’ – has a clear socialist programme of struggle, solidarity and socialism, which can be a big pole of attraction in future mass class and social movements.
The political situation Central Asia generally is very unstable. Poverty-stricken Kyrgyzstan saw its Gross Domestic Product per head fall from $1,700 during the last years of the Soviet Union to just $300 today! This is the result of the “triumph” of the market.
During last year’s ‘Tulip revolution’, the Communist Party supported the opposition capitalist politician Bakayev’s ‘People’s Front’, which eventually came to power. Since the change-over in rule, the country is even poorer and the government is sharply divided and weak. Kyrgyzstan is a ‘fragile state’ on the edge of huge explosions but workers and the poor people desperately need a force of their own.
In Turkmenistan, despite the oil and gas wealth, the economy is in a mess. The social sector has collapsed and food supplies are weak. There are constant rumours of plots and coups against the eccentric, reactionary dictatorship, which recently shut down all the country’s public libraries. This despotic regime is supported by President Bush’s White House, which is vying with Russia and China for influence and control in Central Asia.
The ruthless regime in neighbouring Uzbekistan last year shot dead hundreds of protesters in the Andijan area. The US government made only soft criticisms of its ally over this massacre but the Uzbekistan regime swung to Russia and China to forge new alliances.
Ukraine and Moldova
A participant from Odessa spoke about the continual political and economic crisis in the Ukraine. After the ‘Orange revolution’ of late 2004, which showed that millions of Ukrainians wanted real change, the pro-western government had not delivered. Since the two leaders – Yuschenko and Tymoschenko ha fallen out, the economy has further nose dived. Foreign investors do not want to put big sums into a highly volatile country. Kolya works in Odessa’s docks and described how there is a clear drop in freight passing through the city.
So called ‘left’ parties, like the Socialist Party, which models itself on Blair’s New Labour, and the Communist Party, are hardly to be seen. The CWI, while supporting the mass struggle against the authoritarian rule of President Kuchma in 2004, warned workers that Yuschenko and Tymoschenko were capitalist politicians who put the interests of the rich first. The different competing wings of the oligarchs continue to use Russian and Ukrainian language disputes to whip up nationalism and to divide workers.
The CWI opposes discrimination on the basis of language or nationality and calls for workers’ unity against the bosses’ Ukrainian nationalist chauvinism and its twin – the pro-Russian chauvinism in the east of Ukraine and in Crimea.
A report was also given on Moldova, which is often referred to as the “last Stalinist regime” in Western Europe. Despite having a ‘communist’ president, it carries out right wing policies, including mass privatisation and the opening up of the economy to multinational companies. The country’s economy has shrunk to 1992 levels. Out of a four million population, one million people live abroad, mainly working in low paid jobs. The Moldovan government is not even strong enough to service the credit on its external debt of US$2 billion. Moldova was once a quite industrialised part of the former Soviet Union; now it is part of the ‘Third World’.
Summing up this wide-ranging discussion on the CIS, Igor, the editor of the CWI paper for the CIS, covered the main developments in the ‘big three’ former Soviet Union states – Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. More detail was given on their economies and on the authoritarian forms of rule in the region. Most important is the perspective for Russia.
It is not clear who will succeed Putin, as the ruling elite try to carefully choose a successor for the 2008 elections. The elite know they rest on thin support. Any number of factors can spark a crisis, like a fall in oil prices, or a sharp rise, which would strangle other sectors in the lopsided economy. Inflation is rising in a society with huge social inequalities. But neither parliamentary democracy nor more bonapartist rule can solve the country’s huge problems or guarantee steady capitalist rule.
Anything can spark a new mass movement, including another terrorist attack. A rise in class conflict may start in the more modern factories. The CWI can grow quickly in a period of mass unrest and opposition to governments and despots throughout the former Soviet Union. This will mean building strong support in the cities and towns, particularly amongst the new generation of workers and youth. The congress then heard reports from the different areas of the CIS on the work of the CWI section.
In Yaroslavl, a city three hours drive to the north of Moscow, CWI members were contacted last year by hostel dwellers fighting the privatisation of their homes. Throughout the former Soviet Union, many workers who travel to get work in cities have no choice but to live in communal hostels, often in very basic conditions. Along with hostel dwellers, the CWI in Yaroslavl organised pickets of up to 150 in minus 30 degrees. Later they held a successful public meeting of over 100, representing 32 hostels. These protests got widespread television and press coverage. Subsequently, new people have joined the high profile CWI branch in that city. Another mass protest takes place on 3 March. Hostel rights are a growing issue across the CIS, as indicated by reports from other areas of Russia and also from Ukraine.
Yaroslavl members also campaign with workers in a local refrigerator-making factory – the largest such plant in Russia. The workers are fighting wage arrears. One of the leaders is a woman in her 50s who says she has been a Trotskyist for many years. A ‘Yaroslavl Worker’ bulletin was produced with these factory militants.
During a teachers’ strike, last year, the CWI had a contingent on a march in Yaroslavl, where several CWI members work in schools. The young CWI members show great initiative. During an official ‘Patriotic Day’ public display, CWI supporters turned up with fake red and blue placards (the Russian national flag colours) which quickly turned to red in the snow!
Voronezh and Moscow
In Voronezh city, to the south of Moscow, the CWI is involved in education campaigns. The party’s pamphlet on education is regarded as the best literature on the question, not just by students but also by education authorities. During this campaign, students held a ‘rolling picket’ (continually moving down the city’s main street) as a protest march was not allowed by the local authorities. Voronezh has witnessed the racist murder of several foreign students over the last couple of years and CWI members take a high profile part in protests against these attacks. They also helped out in a three week strike in one factory over wage arrears. Unfortunately, it ended badly for the workers with a ‘deal’ that saw them only get a fraction of the money owed. This was due to desperation and because of a lack of strong, organised independent unions.
In Moscow, the CWI has successfully campaigned on many issues, including education, against privatizations and against Putin’s ‘anti-NGO laws’, which are really an attack on all opposition to his rule. Organisations within the broad left campaigns – lacking a clear perspective and programme – have caused disorientation and demoralization. Many of these ‘left’ groups now work with openly reactionary Russian nationalist parties and groups. The CWI will still continue to work in genuine, broader campaigns, of course, and is now working with a Moscow hostels campaign. The CWI runs ‘video clubs’ in the city, which aim to provoke discussion with youth around political films.
Ukraine and Kazakhstan
In the Ukraine, CWI members are working in universities and in Odessa they run ‘Young Marxist Discussion Groups’. In Kazakhstan there have recently been qualitative improvements in the work of the CWI, with more branches and party activities throughout the country. The party is now much stronger in Alma Ata and in other cities like Karaganda.
In last year’s elections, the CWI distributed 10,000 leaflets against all the pro-market candidates. The media take a close interest in the CWI, which is increasingly viewed as the only principled opposition in the country. Young CWI members held a ‘Rock for Free Education’ concert in Alma Ata last week, which had hundreds of youth attending and was covered widely in the media.
CWI supporters have good links with miners in Kazakhstan, helping them with drawing up leaflets demanding the re-nationalisation of the mining industries and doing solidarity work for their struggles. In the summer, SotsSpor will hold its second camp, following the success of last year’s one. Due to take place in July, it is hoped there will be no snow on the first night as there was at last August’s camp! International guests are invited…
The CIS Congress also discussed the CWI’s paper and website, looking at the content and design of both. They are read across the CIS and bring new names of people interested in joining the section. The site is one of the “Top 10 opposition sites”, according to one of Russia’s main current affairs magazines. It also attracts readers from Russian-speaking populations in Western Europe, Israel, Canada and the US.
The congress went on to elect new bodies that will co-ordinate the work of the CWI until the next congress. The documents were also voted on and agreed, including one on perspectives for the CIS which will be translated into English and posted on CWI sites.
Indicating the growing interest in the CWI in the former Soviet Union, on the last day of the congress, a French television company filmed part of a session and interviewed CWI members.
Congress ended with delegates and visitors singing the ‘Internationale’ and leaving with high confidence and morale. Several people new to the CWI joined. Despite the long, arduous journey by train back home for most of those that attended the congress, the delegates and visitors left with high enthusiasm and a burning determination to build the ideas of genuine socialism in their areas.