President Barack Obama at the G20. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Earlier this month, world leaders at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia were promising to develop proposals to regulate big banks and international tax heavens. Meanwhile, an international group of activists in the same city were proposing a striking alternative.
Participants in the G20 Counter-Summit spent two days discussing ways to solve the intertwined financial and environmental crises that the G20 has been unable or unwilling to seriously address for five years now. Fingering the neoliberal economic policy of G20 members as the main obstacle to worldwide economic recovery, the conference called for a renunciation of austerity policies and World Trade Organization agreements in favor of stricter regulation of markets and capital flows, a broadening of public services and the development of sustainable methods of production and consumption. Participants also drafted a statement condemning any attempts at an outside attack on Syria, which coincided with their call for an end to US hegemony and the emergence of a multipolar world.
“The participants of the counter-summit are speaking out against cruel economics… against cutting expenditures on healthcare and education… against reducing the interests of labor,” said Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute for Globalization and Social Movements, which helped organize the counter-summit, at a closing press conference. “Instead, we want growth of jobs, growth from the bottom up, and growth for the lower classes of society, and this is a much more complicated path.”
“With the G20, we're facing now not only a business community that tries to have it its way through strong lobbying in the side-rooms of official meetings, but they're also inside, defining public policy,” Pierre-Yves Serinet, a Quebec-based activist with Our World Is Not For Sale who also helped plan the counter-summit, told The Nation. “For us, it's tantamount to a coup d'état, which has its expression also at national levels.”
The single greatest argument for the counter-summit's case, of course, is continued worldwide financial instability. Unemployment in the euro zone remains at a record high 12 percent, and youth employment has reached 50 percent in Greece, Spain and Portugal. Meanwhile the United States is seeing a record gap between the employment rates of the highest- and lowest-income families.
Why Protest in Russia?
Russia is itself quickly becoming an example of the austerity-based neoliberal political agenda the counter-summit sought to push back against. Shortly after the summit, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced that his government would cut federal budget expenditures by at least 5 percent between 2014 and 2016, citing volatility on world markets and slowed growth at home. (Russia's gross domestic product growth fell to 1.2 percent in the second quarter of 2013.) To compensate for decreasing budget revenues, the Finance Ministry has proposed additional cuts, such as canceling inflation-tied wage increases for government employees and sales tax discounts for pensioners.
Furthermore, Russia, along with China, has recently become an unfortunate example of the growing effects of climate change, which counter-summit participants pointed out is caused in large part by the emissions of transnational corporations. More than 16,000 Russians have been evacuated as areas along the Amur River in the Far East suffer the worst flooding in 120 years, and hundreds of Chinese citizens are dead or missing. Russian government scientists have said the flooding is part of the increasingly volatile weather patterns caused by global climate change.
Finally, while transnational corporations have not been as present in Russia as in some developing countries, companies like Glencore Xstrata and Monsanto are increasingly gaining a foothold here, a process that will only be facilitated by Russia's recent accession to the WTO.
More than 30 activists from countries in Asia, Europe and North and South America spoke at the conference about global economic and environmental problems and “people's globalization” movements to solve them. (Kagarlitsky said most of them had traveled on their own funds.) One of the favorites of the small number of Russian activists who attended the counter-summit was Kevin Danaher, co-founder of the social justice non-profit Global Exchange. Arguing that the three inherent flaws of transnational corporations are that they are not local, not green and not democratic, Danaher spoke about urban agriculture and other grassroots initiatives in San Francisco that are attempting to build the antithesis: “the locally controlled green economy that is aiming to restore nature rather than destroy it.”
In an odd convergence of interests, two pro-Kremlin analysts also appeared at the conference, speaking on different forms of American imperialism. (The newspaper Kommersant reported that the Russian government had provided funding for the counter-summit.) Alexei Martynov, director of the International Institute for New States, gave a presentation arguing that current international human rights practice is largely a “method of political pressure” by the United States and that Russia should create its own independent human rights court.
Of course, Russia hardly has a stellar human rights record, and more than 20 percent of the case applications pending before the European Court of Human Rights come from Russia, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty recently reported. Several educators and labor organizers present at the conference questioned Martynov and Georgy Fyodorov of the official Public Chamber—who spoke about American uniltateralism—about the controversial Bolotnaya Square prosecutions, in which twenty-seven protesters have been accused of inciting riots and assaulting police at the mass street protests that followed Putin's inauguration in May 2012. Russian opposition leaders such as Alexei Navalny, who recently received 27 percent of the vote in Moscow's mayoral elections, have lambasted the charges as politically motivated and grossly trumped up.
Meanwhile, in a highly incisive presentation criticizing the Russian regime, state Duma deputy and economics professor Oksana Dmitriyeva argued that the government of Russia and other countries are promoting the “hypertrophy of the virtual economy” rather than stimulating the growth of the real economy through job creation.
“What did our government do in response to the financial crisis, which was caused by the overgrowth of the financial sector in the United States?” Dmitriyeva asked. “It put all its resources to work in the financial markets in one form or another, trillions of dollars into the virtual economy. It is first case I know of in the world economy where a government speculated in such a manner in the financial markets.”
Unfortunately, the dialogue between international and Russian issues was limited, due in part to low turnout. The session titled “The Global Economic System and Problems of Large Cities in Crisis. The Case of St. Petersburg: Ecology, City Planning, Housing” was the most well attended but failed to tie the city's problems to global issues. It featured only Russian activists, and the audience was almost entirely Russian as well.
But Yaroslav Nikitenko, a Moscow-based activist with the environmental group Sreda Obitaniya who has campaigned against the controversial highway being built in the Khimki forest, said local activists were able make connections with their international peers, which is important given what he sees as the Russians' isolation from global issues. He asked Danaher about San Francisco's transition to a more green city policy and said he hopes Moscow and other Russian cities can eventually do this.
“I can't say that the counter-summit affected what was going on at the G20 Summit or globally, but for Russia it was the start of participation in something global,” Nikitenko said.
The counter-summit received coverage in a wide variety of Russian-language news outlets, and another product was the Post-Globalization Initiative, which was formed to organize the event. In the course of the planning process, Serinet and other activists from the initiative traveled to Russia and met with groups working in the environmental, feminist and anti-bank movements, as well as art-activism groups and groups fighting for the freedom of the Bolotnaya Square protestors.
Although past counter-summits were accompanied by street rallies, plans for such actions did not materialize in St. Petersburg due to a lack of coordination between local groups, Serinet said. However, a work-to-rule action did start on September 5 at the Antolin factory in St. Petersburg after management cut short negotiations over wages and working conditions, the Interregional Labor Union of Automobile Industry Workers reported. The action was planned to coincide with the G20 Summit to bring attention to the fact that while summit attendees discuss economic stimulus and job creation, “the transnational company Antolin is shamelessly violating basic worker rights to collective negotiations, wage indexation and safe working conditions,” the union announced.
Serinet said that foundations had been laid at the counter-summit to include Russian activists in actions such as the World March of Women and the art activism event MediaImpact.
“Russia is playing a role in the World Economy, its people are also suffering the impacts of corporate-led globalization, so one of our objectives was to create an opportunity to strengthen their ties with our movements globally,” Serinet said.
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