Bert hamminga Siberia         version date 991123   Go to: Questions

The good works of Russian oil barons
tr. Bert hamminga
for original click
Siberia, NRC Handelsblad Moskou Bureau

Neftejoegansk,  a Siberian town,
is bought by the Russian  oil concern Yukos.
A reign of terror or are the oil workers just spoiled?

Journalists are monsters

Write a letter to the Russian oil concern Yukos and an American will call you back: ,,Hi, my name is Joe Ritchey, from  Burson Marsteller.'' Burson Marsteller? ,,Yeah, the biggest pr-company in the world. We advise Yukos.''

My request to visit the little Siberic oil town Neftejoegansk was lying before him. ,,You know, my colleagues at Yukos do not want you to go there. In Neftejoegansk all evils come together, you will feel you landed in hell.''

Hell? ,,I does not look nice there. Yukos is afraid for Westerns journalists. In their eyes you are a monster ready to ruin the company. But I will see what I can do for you."

The next day he calls back. ,,I made it, you get a guide into Neftejoegansk. Not such a notorious KGB-type like you used to have. And, believe me, neither to impose some policy of propaganda on you.''

Two days later, together with the photographer, without informing Joe, I take a Toepolev to Neftejoegansk at the river Ob. The runway is in an icy landscape between snow covered pines. Here and there you see oil pumps, some of them frozen with icicles hanging off them. Over the trees hangs an orange glow of burnt gas. Further down, without any warning, a wall of story buildings: Neftejoegansk, planned and built thirty years ago by the de Soviets. Inhabitants: a quarter million.

Right after checking in in Hotel Sunrise, just one of those story buildings, the phone rings. ,,For you", the receptionist says. ,,Yukos.'' The news of our arrival had travelled faster than us. ,,I hope you had a good journey'', a hurried woman voice says. ,,We have a complete programme for you.'' Our host, Tatjana Overina, turns out to be at the fourth flour.

,,Let us just put our bags in the room. Can we phone back in a moment? '' Instead of that we walk out, stop a Lada and have ourselves driven to the only independent little newspaper.  ‘The Neftejoegansk Worker' is made in the basement of story building 27. Vasili Petrovitsj is a little man wearing Soviet-glasses and eager to talk. ,,We lived well here, until two years ago we were bought by Yukos.'' He writes the lay-off figures on a paper: only 15.500 oil workers are left of the 60.000.

In the mirror towers of Yukos headquarters in Moscow, he says, they bent for Western advice to abolish the Soviet heritage of swimming pools, skating halls, Black Sea holiday camps, Hotel Sunrise en everything that makes life bearable here. ,,They transferred social responsibility to the town administration, but Yukos does not pay tax'', Petrovitsj says. ,,Services collapse but they do not care.'' The previous mayer had begun a hunger strike. Petrovitsj: ,,A list of demands to the Yukos management was nailed on his door''. ,,On day seven he was shot dead'.' On the journal pictures of the funeral, last summer, texts on the banners people had brought could be read clearly: ,,Yukos murderer''

Dangerous Times

This month a new Mayer will be chosen in two rounds of voting. The list of candidates, Potrovitsj explains, is divided in pro and contra the Moscow oil barons.  These are dangerous times, the journalist says,   ,,I now have my twelfth pseudonym toe. Look here. Ivan Withoutmemory. That's me. Look, here I signed with "the annoying conversation partner"

One of the candidates is Farida Islamova, the widow of the killed mayor. Her campaign is covered in mystery. Her collaborators do not want to say where she is. Only after Petrovitsj calls to say we are no Yukos-infiltrators, we get an address: Farida is in the mosque, Microrayon 8, number 10.

siberia1.jpg (29634 bytes)Farida Islamova , running for mayor, speaks to supporters in an apartment used as mosque : ,,Yukos' is an anti popular policy''. Photo: Oleg Klimov/Fotoloods

No minaret to see in town quarter number 8: there are only story buildings as everywhere in Neftejoegansk. But at a blind wall of bloc 10 there is a plate: Tatar Mosque, first entrance , second floor. Inside, on thick carpets, men sit cross-legged, prayer chains slipping through their hands. Women from south republics with tanned skin sit apart. Then, from behind a curtain, Farida appears, her head covered with a white voile. ,,Yukos' policy is anti popular'', she says with trembling voice, not used to appearances of this kind. ,,May be you heard the Yukos candidate say: who is that Farida? Why does a widow run for Mayer? But it is my right to participate and I will finish the work my husband started."

The Moslem in the apartment room mosque have lots of questions. Can she make sure that everybody who has been fired can go back to work? Can she control market prices? Is not she afraid she is going to get killed? After finishing the sessions Farida (47) says she wants to be like Margaret Thatcher. ,,If men cannot solve the problems it is time for women to take over politics', says she. But the struggle is unfair. ,,Yukos has the money and the power, it like fighting with bare hands against someone with a kalashnikov.''

Tatjana calls us in the evening. She waited all afternoon for our phone call, and now it is too late for a guided tour. We agree to meet in the restaurant. The well dressed Yukos-lady turns out to be a spindoctor with three academic titles. She came from Moscow especially for the elections to head a Yukos pr-team of six.

,,I work with the local media", she says. How? ,,I bring them material and we publish it; TV-Intel en de Joegansk Oil are journals in our hands.'' Her strategy is simple. "With our message in the media we deal with fatigue among the people. Confrontations and hunger strikes do not solve anything, for God sake let us elect a Mayer who finds a way out of the stalemate.''

The psychologists agrees the situation in town is explosive. ,,That is because in Soviet times wages were so high here.'' With a little graph she refutes Marx "Verelendungstheorie". ,,Marx thought people would rise by themselves if life got bad enough. But things do not work that way. .The danger of rebellion only increases if the standard of living rises for a while and then plunges, while hope for a better future remains. That is the present day case in Neftejoegansk.''

To prevent this social explosion Yukos has to raise all his public relation sails.  In the company pamphlet the 44.500 lay off is called ,,making a solid foundation for the next millennium''. In the meantime the votes of the first round are counted.  Yukos' Mayor candidate Tkatsjov leads with 41,9 percent, Farida ended fifth without any chance with only 2,3 percent. In the second round on 28 februari Tkatsjov runs against the fired oil worker Anfir Fasloedinov, who wants to sue Yukos. Farida supports him.

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