Russian Layoffs May Spark Political Backlash Plummeting oil prices have sent shock waves through Russia's economy, and there are worries that the beginning of 2009 will bring a wave of layoffs across the country. Tens of thousands have already lost their jobs, and some suggest that resulting social unrest might cause a backlash against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Russian Layoffs May Spark Political Backlash

Russian Layoffs May Spark Political Backlash

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/99250562/99345985" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Sergei Sychov works at a factory that produces ball bearings, not far from his high-rise apartment building — part of an endless spread of Soviet residential blocks on the snow-swept outskirts of Moscow. But he's due to be laid off this month.

In his small but cozy kitchen, Sychov talks with two fellow workers who've already been fired. Until recently, Russians took their oil-fueled economic boom for granted. Now, Sychov says he and countless others will survive by relying on tactics they learned during the turbulent 1990s.

"Most people will get by on odd jobs and growing vegetables on their garden plots. It's the elderly who will suffer the most," he says.

Plummeting oil prices have sent shock waves through Russia's economy, and there are worries that the beginning of 2009 will bring a wave of layoffs across the country. Some suggest that resulting social unrest might cause a backlash against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Depression And Anger

Under communism, everyone was supposedly guaranteed a job. The ball-bearing plant employed 24,000 people and its products were distributed across the Soviet Union. The business survived the turmoil of the Soviet collapse with 2,000 workers, but now, most of the factory stands idle.

More than 40,000 people have been laid off across Russia since October. Putin has blamed the crisis on the United States. He's warned Russian companies not to fire people without good reason, and he's promised to raise unemployment benefits to a maximum of $170 a month. But that's little consolation to those where the crisis will be felt the most — in the hundreds of towns across Russia where the local economy is supported by just one industry.

Fifty miles outside Moscow lies the town of Elektrostal, or "electric steel." The stolid, Stalin-era town was founded in the 1930s along with the main employer, a machine factory that now operates only three days a week.

In the town's tiny, dilapidated unemployment office, a clerk named Rosa Yazeva says hundreds of people have stopped by in the past several days.

The old Communist Party is the only thing that approaches an opposition here. Party member Maxim Popov says residents are bewildered.

"There's a deep sense of depression because no one can be sure what's going to happen tomorrow," Popov says. "But there's also anger: Crime rates are rising so quickly, it's getting dangerous to be outside after dark."

'Social Unrest Is Turning Political'

Many believe the Kremlin's biggest concern is heading off a political backlash. There have already been stirrings of discontent. Last month, hundreds of people took to the streets in the Far East port of Vladivostok. They were protesting new import duties on foreign cars meant to protect woeful domestic production in a region that depends on the car import industry. Riot police beat and arrested dozens.

Sociologist Evgenii Gontmakher says it was a rare occasion, in which ordinary Russians publicly criticized Putin.

"It's a sign social unrest is turning political. And it's happening very quickly," he says. "If there are many more layoffs, other incidents could develop around the country."

It reminded Gontmakher of an incident in the 1960s, when Red Army soldiers shot dozens of workers when they suppressed a protest in central Russia. When Gontmakher warned in a recent newspaper article that it might happen again, the publication received a warning from the government about printing "extremist" stories.

Back in the Moscow kitchen, unemployed factory worker Stas Timashkov says most people ignored the government's authoritarianism when the country's prosperity was trickling down.

Now, he says, Russians are being forced to ask questions about their own political and economic future.