Sunday, January 10, 2016

Russian Teacher Woes

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) --  The first half of December witnessed a new wave of fresh teacher strikes against unpaid salaries in a school in Priargunskii and the Zaibaikalskii regions of Russia. Concerning the latter case, those school teachers had already embarked on a strike over unpaid salaries from September of this year! It seems that unpaid salaries of Russian teachers threatens to become an enduring feature of Russian teaching and that they are regressing to the   situation which predominated in the 1990s. But teachers are not alone. Journalists and staff at Russian fast food restaurants have also been unpaid.

              'My ex-husband, who works as a journalist has not been paid for 2 months so I have not obtained the 20,000 ruble alimony which he usually pays me every month. He tells me he will attempt to pay me when he somehow manages to borrow cheaper credit from the banks', laments Russian teacher Oksana Chebotareva, a mother of two children. This seems to be a common practice. A person with unpaid debts, will attempt to pay off older creditors by borrowing from new creditors at a cheaper rate of interest. In this way, the patience of creditors won't be tested to the limit. Yet the interest from borrowing a loan from bank is high. It can often be 35% and 20% is viewed as a bargain! What is clear is that falling into debt has become as infectious as the recurring flu epidemic in Moscow. Once the government falls into debt and can't pay salaries, so do the unpaid workers fall into debt as they are forced to borrow money to pay basic utility payments. In the long term, this unchecked trend threatens to disrupt and destabilise the Russian economy. Oksana's ex-husband told me, 'If the government continues
to carry out mass redundancies and refuses to pay salaries we will see  potentially explosive unrest and people will take to the streets in angry protests.'

             In fact, we are already seeing a mass protest of truckers against a new tax which, if paid, would bankrupt most of them. Workers at the fast-food pizza restaurant Sbarro in Moscow have embarked on a strike because they have not been paid since even Summer! Raisa Bulaeteva complains she has not been paid since July, and is owed 160,000 rubles by Sbarro while a cook complains he is owed 200,000 rubles. And Russian teachers have been on strike over unpaid salaries again. In Zabaikalskii region, some teachers have embarked on a strike, and from the 10th of December, 50 teachers from Priargunskii went on strike. The headmistress of one school, Galina Zolotovskaya, complained they had not received money for November not
to mention what they should get this December. The teachers are at pains to stress that the strike won't affect students set to take the final year exams and very young children as their parents need to go out and work while they remain in school. Another school on strike is in the village of
Pervoimaiskii Shilkinskovo region number two. As many as twenty teachers are on strike.

             How are the authorities reacting to this? They are seeking to pacify the teachers by promising to pay them eventually. They claim they don't have the money or that the central government is not sending the payments on time. There are some rumours going about that the money was sent but the banks arrested this transfer of money they claim they are owed for unpaid debt.

             The failure to pay teachers' salaries on time as well as increasing their salaries represents a major violation of the May 2012 accord, where the government promised to substantially double their salaries. However, the falling price of oil, a weak ruble and the squandering of money on a huge costly war in Syria has meant stronger enforcement of austerity policies. The cost of being ' a great power' again is often unpaid salaries, pensions and inaccessible medical care. If the Russian government has the resources to fight a war in Syria, then surely they could have paid the salaries of unpaid teachers?

             While we could easily overstate how severe the Russian crisis is, (it is not on the verge of collapse and has reserve funds to last for years to come) the perspectives for the Russian economy are grim. Everyone I have spoken
to is acquainted with a person who has either lost their job or has not been paid what is due to them. The consensus amongst experts such as the Atlantic centre, World Bank and other institutions is that the level of poverty will rise to 16% of the Russian population. However, sharper critics claim it has already risen to double or even triple those figures.

            None of this bad news has dented the popularity of President Putin who has ratings of over 90%. The taking of Crimea along with a war in Syria has boosted a new sense of national pride where the west no longer insults, injures and bullies Russia. Russians boast they are the only nation   standing up to America while the rest of the world cringes before it.

            Social surveys indicate that the happiness of Russians has increased over the last few years. It is evident that a sense of dignity and pride in being a great power is more decisive in making people happy than even a rise, or even fall, in income.

            It is very likely that for some time Russians will blame officials and politicians in the Duma for unpaid salaries, unemployment and poverty. The logic tends to go, 'If Putin knew how unjust we were being treated, he would intervene and punish those corrupt officials that are pocketing funds on the sly.' Indeed, some of the striking teachers have already written and sent a letter with their grievances to President Putin himself appealing for justice. How the president will react when he obtains or ever reads this letter is anyone's   guess!

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