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Glazyev’s star is rising on the politicai left – but you wouldn’t know it from his silence on Norilsk Nickel’s labor dispute

It is recorded that, in April of 1794, when Georges Danton, the French revolutionary leader, was awaiting the guillotine at the foot of the scaffold, he remarked, “Ah, better to be a poor fisherman than muck about with politics.” Ho fisherman is reported to have been present to nod his head. Just how penniless a man should become before he can afford to risk his life in politics, Danton did not have time to discuss.

Sergei Glazyev – at 42, a little older than Danton was when he made his last remark – may prove to be the man who risks himself for the highest political office in the land. But, for the time being, he is signaling he is uncomfortable risking anything. That is to say, he is saying next to nothing. If he were a poor fisherman, metalworker or miner, maybe Glazyev could afford to take Danton’s sharp advice. But he’s been a professional politician for a decade, starting as a liberal reform minister under then-President Boris Yeltsin and, then, his critic and opponent on the left side of the Duma.

Ever since he polled a surprisingly strong 21 percent in last year’s Krasnoyarsk Krai gubernatorial race – against the combined resources of two of Russia’s metals oligarchs -Glazyev has demonstrated the potential to lead a nationwide swing to the left of voters who balk at supporting the Communist Party, with which Glazyev is in alliance. At least for the moment, a leftward swing by such generally non-Communist groups as trade unionists, professionals (teachers, doctors) and young voters looks to be the most likely outcome of the Duma election in December. But for Glazyev to say nothing to them, his core constituency, is a curious way of kicking off the campaign.

To say nothing when, despite the oil boom, the real value of wages is no higher than it was a decade ago, when a new round of corporate infighting and asset carve-ups is looming, when public funding for health, housing, utilities and welfare will be cut as soon as the election period is over and when workers in the metal and mining industries face massive job cuts – for Glazyev to say nothing about these things is not to campaign at all.

Valery Melnikov, union leader and candidate for mayor of Norilsk, is the most militant union figure in Russia today. Since last December, he’s been waging a campaign against Norilsk Nickel, Russia’s largest mining company, and the two oligarchs who own it – Vladimir Potanin and Mikhail Prokhorov. Well-paid though Norilsk Nickel’s workers are compared with other Russian workers, their share in the company’s expanding profits has been declining.

As management has cut jobs and reduced benefits, Melnikov’s union has also been shut out of the collective-bargaining process that is written into Russian labor law. Prokhorov, the chief executive officer of the company, has signaled his intention to destroy independent union representation altogether. When Melnikov turned to politics, running against the company-backed candidate for mayor, he won the first round but was forced off the second ballot. A company political assessment admitted that the town voters were more opposed to the company than the management anticipated – or Prokhorov cared. A company veteran has been put in charge of the city as acting mayor, and he is likely to be the candidate when the election is rerun in October.

Glazyev ought to be the natural ally of any advocate for the Norilsk Nickel workers.In 1996, when he became head of economic security on the Kremlin’s Security Council, he publicly called Potanln’s and Prokhorov’s takeover of Norilsk Nickel “illegal” and proposed reprivatization. Within weeks, he was forced to retract and, shortly afterward, to resign. Glazyev cannot have forgotten.

His run for governor in Krasnoyarsk Krai last year was against Alexander Khloponin, the former chief executive officer of Norilsk Nickel. Khloponin’s victory in the regional race has made it easy for the company to keep Melnikov out of the running for the municipality, at least so far. In the Duma election this December, Potanin has publicly promised to back the Kremlin’s candidates, and Khloponin certainly won’t be helping the Communists or Glazyev. What, then, does Glazyev have to lose by backing Melnikov in a test of strength a few weeks ahead of the Duma poll?

Glazyev himself will not respond to this question. His assistant, Anna Gorbatova, was able to say only that this silence is not accidental. “In the recent past,” she said, “Glazyev has not made any statements concerning the Norilsk elections or the possibility of reprivatization of Norilsk Nickel.” Because some uncharitable Russian reporters have intimated that this might be because the oligarchs have been paying Glazyev on the sly – in order to split the left vote -Gorbatova added that “Glazyev didn’t get any financial or other support from Interros [Potanin’s and Prokhorov’s holding company] or Norilsk Nickel during the election campaign for governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai. Glazyev doesn’t deal with any financial matters related to the election campaign of the left opposition.”

This is reassuring: Glazyev is keeping his hands clean. But, if he also insists on keeping his head empty and his voice mute, the effect is the same – he plays into the hands of those he purports to oppose, According to Melnikov, there has not even been a conversation between the two of them: “I haven’t met or talked to Glazyev, and I have no idea what his position could be,” Melnikov added, charitably, “he is probably busy with other things.”

What could they be?

According to Mikhail Tarasenko, the chairman of the Mining and Metallurgical Trade Union of Russia – which doesn’t include Norilsk Nickel’s workers and doesn’t share Melnikov’s militancy – the current prospects for his members are far from good. The trade unions, he said recently in Moscow, “are worried by the employment situation. In 2002, the number of employees in metallurgy decreased by 65,000. So far, the decrease occurred without any significant social conflicts, because the market was able to absorb the workers that leave the metals sector. However, in some regions, there are problems with finding new employment for workers leaving metallurgical plants.”

There are other problems too. Attrition by early retirement is slowing down. After a brief pickup in payroll numbers in 2001, worker numbers in steel fell 6 percent in 2002, and workers in the non-ferrous-metals industries fell 3 percent. At the same time, union data suggest that worker productivity jumped 27 percent in steel and 10 percent in non-ferrous metals. Raising output while cutting jobs, Tarasenko admits, is the way productivity will be raised in the future.

This isn’t beneficial for those who manage to hang on to their jobs, either. “Regarding salaries,” Tarasenko said, “we must admit that, in spite of the growth of average salaries in metallurgy in the past several years, we still haven’t reached the 1992 level in terms of average salaries and purchasing power. At the same time, different social benefits that existed in the past, such as free housing provided to workers, are non-existent now, and pensions are lower than in Soviet years.”

Glazyev is a highly skilled economist by training. He knows the numbers. As chairman of the Duma Committee on Economic Policy In the second half of the 1990s, he was a frequent critic of the Yeltsin model of economic development. So, if Russian metalworkers are facing a future in which they will grow poorer while the corporations they work for grow more profitable, what is the cat that has caught Glazyev’s tongue?

Union man Tarasenko isn’t a militant in the Melnikov mould. “I think that the 10 percent personnel decrease at Rusal is a realistic figure,” he says, adding that he hopes management will be humane. “There needs to be a thorough program for each individual enterprise. I hope that, given Rusal’s social responsibility, everything can be done properly.”

When facing the chop, it’s human to hope. In Russia, if opposition leaders like Glazyev can’t provide hope, there won’t be any.

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