MOSCOW – An outbreak of long-predicted unrest among Russia's crisis-hit workers sent the Kremlin hurtling into damage control this week, while experts warned that mass disturbances in the western town of Pikalyovo could be the leading edge of a much larger approaching storm.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rushed to the area on Thursday after about 500 angry workers blockaded a major highway to protest unpaid wages, backing up traffic for more than 200 miles.
Mr. Putin took a huge gamble, experts say, by siding unambiguously with the workers, raking the owners of three failing local factories over the coals, and ordering that all wage arrears be paid by today.
"You have made thousands of people hostages to your ambitions, your lack of professionalism – or maybe simply your trivial greed," Putin said in a televised meeting with local officials and the businessmen, including powerful Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska.
"Why was everyone running around like cockroaches before my arrival?" Putin added. "Why was no one capable of making decisions?"
Almost a quarter of the population of Pikalyovo, a town of 21,000 about 130 miles southeast of St. Petersburg, have lost their jobs so far this year. The three plants that have stalled, which produce cement and aluminum, are the region's only big employers.
The turmoil looks eerily like the realization of a published prediction made last November as the economic crisis was beginning to hit by economist Yevgeny Gontmakher, who warned that more than 100 Soviet-era single-industry cities, with about 20 percent of the country's population, were vulnerable to extreme social upheaval if the factories that sustained them closed.
Mr. Gontmakher nearly lost his job at the official Institute of Economics over the article, but he now says the crisis has already grown far more acute than he had expected.
"In some of these cities, there is no prospect for economic activity at all," he says. "This situation in Pikalyovo has shown that the system of power constructed by Putin is a Potemkin village," meaning an "empty facade," he says.
"Nobody seemed to be able to do anything until Putin arrived personally. Where was United Russia [the huge pro-Kremlin political party]? Where were the trade unions? Where were local authorities? Everything seems to depend on Putin, and that's potentially disastrous," he says.
Experts say that Putin succeeded in defusing the situation and burnishing his own personal image as a hands-on manager in the process. But there may be a high price to pay down the road, some warn.
"There are so many small cities like Pikalyovo in Russia, and economic forecasts for the coming autumn are looking very gloomy. So there's a very good chance that conflicts will multiply," says Andrei Ryabov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
"Now people have seen Putin on their TV screens solving one problem, everyone will want him to come and fix their situation too. But Putin can't go everywhere. He's put himself in a very risky position," he says.
But rarely have they taken to the streets to protest. This week's unrest in Pikalyovo was Russia's worst labor conflict since Siberian coal miners struck following the economic meltdown in 1998, experts say.
More protest is brewing in the central Russian region of Yaroslavl, where a major textile mill has laid off about half of its 2,000 workers, say local activists.
"There are no jobs in the small towns around here, and there may certainly be trouble," says Renat Chapas, a leader of the Left Front, a militant workers' group, reached by telephone in Yaroslavl. "Let's see Putin put out all the fires."