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Russia refuses re-entry to American trade union activist
January 10, 2003

MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia has barred entry to a U.S. trade union activist widely respected for her efforts to defend workers' rights, underlining Moscow's apparent uneasiness with American influence on its domestic affairs.

Irene Stevenson of Chicago was one of a rare, hearty breed of American expatriates who came to Moscow in the waning days of the Soviet Union and stayed -- first working for the ITAR-Tass state news agency, then moving on to consulting work and union development. She heads the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, the AFL-CIO's outpost in Moscow.

"I don't think there's an independent trade union that doesn't know Irene Stevenson and isn't grateful for the efforts she's made," Russian human rights campaigner Lyudmila Alexeyeva said Friday.

Stevenson left Moscow on Dec. 24 to visit her family. When she returned to Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on Dec. 30, passport officials confiscated her visa -- which had been renewed just a month and a half previously -- and told her she was barred from entering the country.

No reason was given, and Stevenson's colleagues in Moscow have been unable to get any explanation. They assume the action was connected with her work, which included media appearances in which she spoke out passionately in perfect Russian about the need for workers to defend their interests.

"Probably when our trade unionists say the law is being broken and wages aren't being paid, no one pays attention," said Eduard Vokhmin, the American Center's program director. "But when a representative of an international organization says so, it's probably not very comfortable for some people."

Stevenson, who is in Paris, has declined to comment on the action.

The move against Stevenson followed one of the most successful Russian labor action in years -- a highly publicized, four-day hunger strike by air traffic controllers, who won salary increases of up to 28 percent. Government officials reluctantly agreed to negotiations as doctors pulled weakened controllers off the job and several regional airports were forced to delay flights or shut down altogether.

"Considering the general attention and results we achieved, we probably have inspired other trade unions," said Sergei Kovalyov, the president of Russia's Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Trade Unions.

Stevenson played no direct role in the hunger strike, Kovalyov said. The only link was a lawyer from the American Center who represented the air controllers during a court case in early December.

For many Russian workers, the hunger strike crystallized growing dissatisfaction over lagging salaries and what many see as worsening conditions for labor here after showing improvement at the beginning of President Vladimir Putin's administration in 2000.

Putin made it an early priority to shrink the mountain of unpaid salaries to state workers that prompted protests during his predecessor Boris Yeltsin's rule. But after initial successes the debt is creeping back up and protests are being seen again.

As of Dec. 1, the government owed $1.17 billion in back wages, up from $1.12 billion the previous year, according to the State Statistics Committee.

Many workers also were incensed about Russia's new labor code, which was passed by the parliament and signed into law last year. The new code is perceived to weaken unions, for example by making no provision for collective agreements.

Stevenson's case also echoes several recent high-profile expulsions of foreigners considered a threat to the nation, including missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers. The refusals are never explained.

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