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Air Traffic Controllers Protest 'Totalitarian' Conditions

Air traffic controllers directing planes flying over half of Russia's European territory and hundreds of other workers have gone on a hunger strike to demand the ouster of their boss over "totalitarian" working conditions, their union said Wednesday.

The union said flight safety would not be affected.

The federal agency that manages flights in Russian airspace, the State ATM Corporation, denied that any air traffic controllers had gone on a strike.

About 2,000 air traffic controllers and technical workers fr om 34 airports nationwide are taking part in the hunger strike during off-duty hours, said Sergei Kovalyov, president of the Federal Union of Air Traffic Controllers.

"They don't fast at work because flight safety has to be ensured," Kovalyov told The Moscow Times.

A total of 6,500 air traffic controllers and a similar number of technical workers are employed at airports nationwide, Kovalyov said.

He said all 300 controllers and technical workers serving half of Russia's European territory, including the entire Southern Federal District, were on strike at the air traffic control center in Rostov-on-Don, wh ere the labor action started Friday.

Workers at other airports joined the strike in preceding days, and the airports affected now include Irkutsk, Khanty-Mansiisk, Krasnodar, Murmansk, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Tyumen, Ufa, Volgograd and Yekaterinburg, the union said in a statement. Air traffic controllers in Moscow and St. Petersburg were not participating in the strike.

"Deceit, intimidations, blackmail and totalitarian method of management in regard to dissident workers are ordinary practice in State ATM Corporation," Kovalyov said in an English-language statement.

Kovalyov also said flight safety was "not a priority" for the agency and complained that its head, Valery Gorbenko, had reneged on an agreement to index salaries to inflation from April 2009.

Calls to the State ATM Corporation went unanswered Wednesday. But Gorbenko's aide, Andrei Pryanishnikov, said in a statement Tuesday that no controllers were on a strike and insisted that salaries had been raised, although later than planned. Pryanishnikov said the raises had been delayed until October because of the economic crisis.

He made no comment on the complaints of "totalitarian" working conditions or the concerns about flight safety.

A strike of air traffic controllers in 2002 disrupted flights at regional airports and forced the government to offer a sizable hike in salaries to the controllers.

U.S. labor activist Irene Stevenson, who helped provide legal assistance to the strike, had been turned away at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in December 2002 based on Federal Security Service information that she was a threat to national security.

The latest protest comes as air traffic controllers face scrutiny over the crash of the Polish presidential plane in Smolensk on Saturday. Crash investigators said the plane's pilots ignored a warning from air traffic controllers to seek an alternative airport because of heavy fog. Media reports have speculated that the crash might be linked to miscommunication between the pilots and the controllers because of poor English skills.

The crash killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and 94 other people. President Dmitry Medvedev will attend Kaczynski's funeral in Warsaw on Sunday.

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