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Siberian Social Forum: Progress in coordinating the movement

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Solidarity solving “logistical” problems

The fourth Siberian Social Forum was held between the 3rd and the 5th of august, 2007, in Novosibirsk. An assembly of social movements and labour unions attended the Forum this year. During the 3 days, over 250 delegates from 32 Russian regions worked to bring together their points of view and to begin a campaign network and plan.

The participants represented a large collection of social initiatives, and union movements and organizations. Staunchly to the left and well within the traditions for a global alternative, the forum found its place within the debates over the various politico-ideological orientations of the various participating groups. Nevertheless, the major part of discussions was held on more practical and concrete issues such as the methods of struggle and self-management. Overall, the Forum took place under one constantly repeated word: solidarity.

Despite this, the forum could well have ended badly. On the eve of the Forum opening, local organizers learned that a dangerous virus had suddenly infected the residence allotted for participants; the location for the Forum was closed for repairs; and musical festivities obstructed the planned rally in the major square. But it would take more than this to stop these militants. They took siege of the regional administration throughout the morning of the 3rd of August, demanding a meeting with authorities and the removal of the obstacles to the Forum. The picketing was stopped when the vice-governor promised to solve the problems.

The demonstration in the afternoon was unfortunately not permitted. This did not dissuade the militants. For 2 hours, all delegations showed up shouting hostile slogans at the local authorities. Police attempted to make some arrests, but were prevented by the crowds.

Finally, the residence was “disinfected”, and participants could assemble at the sites for the Forum- a beautiful and remote location lost in the Taiga on an enormous lake. At the last minute, the organizers had had to find an alternate location for the Forum. For the sake of caution, the address was kept secret up until the very last minute.

The clandestine atmosphere only reinforced the sense of euphoria, which defined the first plenary, presided over by representatives of the local coalition: The committee for united action for the region of Novosibirsk. The committee was founded during the massive uprising of pensioners against reforms to the social security systems in early 2005, grouping together unions, inhabitants associations, and leftist groups. The dynamism of this coalition, as well as the strong presence of the Union of coordination soviets (councils) of Russia, an interregional network for social struggles, en particular for the right to housing, played a very positive role in the debates by sharing their experiences.

Main Themes

Participants worked in sections concentrating on six main themes: the right to housing and self-management by inhabitants; the right to work and labour unionism; ecological problems and necessary solutions; the violation of human rights; resistance to the commercialization of Education; and pensioners’ problems. Below are some details on the sections with some of the more constructive results.

Towards a Day of Action for a decent retirement in autumn 2007

The section on retirement and pensions quickly summed up the situation: everyone agreed the scandalously low pensions (around 80 euros a month, about 25% of the average salary) do not allow for living expenses, let alone survival. The discussions therefore revolved around action to pressure the government to raise pensions significantly (up to at least 10 000 rubles) and to guarantee the amount (after the last reform, the retirement system rests principally on capitalization). It was decided to organize a day of coordinated action in the region for the fall, under the slogan: “For a decent retirement!” The section ended with pensioners of Novosibirsk deciding to found a movement of retirees of the region and to start a regular judicial and militant consultation on the matter.

Mobilization for the right to housing and self-management in the fall of 2007

The section dedicated to housing issues attracted the most participants. It focused on experiences in self-organization and resistance, looking specifically at reforms for building management, uncontrolled building, inhabitants of shelter for workers threatened by evictions, small savings groups victimized by fraudulent real estate operations, renovations for decaying housing facilities, results of the new policy for housing and urban development involving accelerated privatization of urban services and encouraging real estate speculation. In regards to these questions and others, there have been many successful experiments in several cities achieved through both judicial channels and the struggle for social justice. Through the work in this sector, it became increasingly evident that most participants preferred the idea of self-management outside of the structures of a corrupted state allied with the real estate mafia to the traditional dependence on a paternalistic state. The group decided to initiate collective action this fall in defense of the right to housing and self-management and calling on all networks and regions to participate. The declared action will fit within the 2007-2008 Global Campaign “Fighting together for Housing for all,” which will begin with the “IAI Global Days for Zero Evictions” leading up to the Day of Global Mobilization of the World Social Forum the 26th of January, 2008.

Campaign for the right to strike and solidarity between social movements and trade labour unions

The unionist section attracted representation from several syndicates struggling against and being victimized by the repression of labour unions. The participants began the section by paying respect to the courage shown by the workers in the AvtoVAZ (Lada) factory who went on a warning strike August 1st and sparked a rebirth in the Russian Union movement. New conflicts are less over non-payment of salaries, a less common problem than before, and more on the level of salaries, working conditions (particularly over safety and over-time). Participants recalled the increase in the Kouzbass mine tragedies, caused by the disregard for safety measures in the name of profit at any cost or for the sake of increasing salaries (still an issue in most enterprises). In order to push the struggle forward, the groups highlighted the need to continue starting new free unions and, in solidarity, defending them against repression (dismissals, discrimination, et c). Striking was decided to be the most effective means, though the most dangerous. The new 2002 Labour Code has made legal strikes virtually impossible. It was therefore decided to begin a campaign for the right to strike. Finally, sabotage and wildcat striking were seen as the surest form of action- and currently the most popular among unions.

The section also dealt with issues around solidarity, indispensable not only between unions, but also social movements. For this reason, participants adopted a declaration insisting on the need to bring together these two elements of mobilization.

Action for the right to education and return to school

The students and teachers united in the education section discussed current reforms threatening the livelihoods of staff and the affordability and quality of teaching, caused by massive privatization and the commoditization of education services. Inter-regional action, under the title “Education for All”, will begin after the return to school to defend the right to education.

Support for ecological activists against the Angarsk Center for Nuclear Waste

Finally, the section on ecological issues dealt principally with the ineffective city policies and rehashed the debate within the section on the right to housing. Participants here also adopted a resolution to support the environmental activists who had held a protest camp during the entire month of May in the region of Angarsk (near Irkutsk) against the international nuclear waste treatment centre. Recall, that skinhead youths attacked the camp, wounding several of the militants and causing the death of one.

An unheard debate: Solidarity and relationships between social movements and political parties

The second day of the Forum was set for debate. Of the many themes, that of solidarity within the struggle advanced the most on a practical and analytical level. It was a rare moment of self-reflection on militant activity by the militants themselves. Participants brought forth their experiences from their respective fields, as of yet, unheard of in Russia.

The second debate dealt with the relationships between social movements and political parties. This was much less turbulent than it could have been, proof that the politicians and social activists present at the Forum had accepted, on certain levels, that cooperation between the two groups could be profitable.

2008: the Russian European Forum and the Siberian Forums

At the closing session, the Forum participants agreed on a short declaration included at the end of this article.

Finally, it must be said that work went well into each night at the hostels where the participants from out of town were staying. In the convivial nature of Russia, campfires and late-night swims lasted sometimes until dawn. The event so invigorated the militants that a meeting was planned for next year, surely in Omsk, with the intention of organizing 2 consecutive Forums: The Russian European Forum and the Siberian Forum.

Declaration of the Fourth Siberian Social Forum and of the assembly of social movements and labour unions of Russia

We, representatives of associations, unions, members of numerous local initiatives groups, with differing political opinions, and taking part in the Siberian Social Forum declare:

These last years in Russia have reinforced the offensive against social, ecological, political rights, and against rights linked to housing and land. This attack is the result of a political policy directed against the interests of the people and is led by the country’s leaders. This situation is neither linked to the errors of one government, nor to the personality of any given representative of the power structure, but to the social and political system present in the country and the world of globalization- a system founded on the transformation of man and his capacity into a commodity, with the objective of exploitation and oppression. This could only have provoked resistance in the heart of the Russian population, which has now begun to mobilize in all regions of the country to defend its rights. Now, this resistance has resulted in a struggle taking form through more and more collective and solidarity action. There is a renaissance of seriously combative union movements, a solid inhabitant movement, the beginning of pensioners organizing, and environmentalist organizations mobilizing all in the defense of human rights.

We have decided to contribute to the awakening of society, to its taking responsibility and to the progress of citizen self-management. We are launching a call for solidarity in the resistance to the power structure’s anti-social policies and to support solidarity between citizens, social and political movements, and the cities and regions of the country. The exchange of experience, working on concrete problems, judicial defense, proposals for alternative projects towards social education, economic and cultural livelihoods, organization of practical action, massive and targeted protest, coordination of collective action on the city, region, and country scale- such is the voice of our struggle. Freedom and social justice- such is our objective.

The participants of the fourth Siberian Social Forum (250 participants from 32 regions in Russia)