ANYONE looking through back copies of Nato's own publication, Nato Review, will be struck by its continuing obsession with the former Soviet Union and east European countries. The counter-revolutionary changes and subsequent scaling down of the Cold War in Europe have not moved the former Warsaw Pact countries out of Nato's spotlight at all.
Nato, which has already expanded to take in the territory of the former German Democratic Republic, is working to build co-operative links with the other east European states. It is likely that Nato will eventually accept these countries into membership.
But this will not apply to Russia. Indeed the expansion of Nato eastwards is desgned to take Nato right up to Russia's western frontier to maintain pressure on what Nato clearly regards as a large, cornerstone state which remains politically unstable.
Western politicians may frequently assert that "socialism failed and is now dead", but the actions of the West's military alliance suggest that these capitalist leaders don't believe their own propaganda.
If socialism had died and capitalism blossomed, the disbandment of the Warsaw Treaty Organisation would have been followed by a reduction in Nato's operations in Europe. Instead Nato is enlarging itself -- why? -- to stand guard over a corpse?
As the current crisis in Albania clearly shows -- it is capitalism that has spectacularly failed. For the majority of Albanians it has brought ruin, not prosperity.
In the former socialist countries, including Russia, the return to capitalism has been disastrous. For many workers the promised "good times" quickly became the "bad times" as they experienced unemployment for the first time in their lives. And pensioners and others on fixed incomes found they had to endure grinding poverty and a loss of dignity they would never have dreamed possible in the years of socialism.
Reports from Russia tell of thousands of workers having to exist without pay for weeks and even months. Others are paid "in kind" and have to sell the goods they have made at work for themselves. Even soldiers in Russia's army have gone short of pay and provisions and have had to protest.
The plight of many children is desperate. Some families have been so overwhelmed by poverty that children have been abandoned and many now live on the streets like urchins in Victorian Britain.
Social problems have soared. Drug abuse, alcoholism, prostitution and crime are rife. Diseases like diphtheria and TB have made an unwelcome return.
Of course a few have made fortunes. The return of capitalism has been great for the scum who run the new Mafia gangs and the rest of the carpet-baggers and thieves.
Decent workers across eastern Europe and Russia have been callously tipped-off by con merchants taking advantage of their innocence in the ways of capitalism. We saw this happen in Poland when a so-called banker ran off with a small fortune of other people's cash. We see it today in the "pyramid" racket in Albania.
It has been great too for the big transnational western-based oil companies who have now got their snouts into the trough of the former Soviet Union's oil-producing areas.
But for the vast majority of people, the loss of working class state power has inevitably led to a huge drop in the standard of living, a massive cut in the social wage and greater insecurity. There is, of course, widespread discontent.
In the early years of the capitalist restoration, Gorbachov and then Yeltsin sought to placate the growing dissatisfaction among the people by taking a begging bowl around the western capitals. They could surely not have thought the West's leaders would fill their bowl with dollars for no return. After all capitalism is not a charitable institution.
The Russian leaders did not get what they asked for. What they did receive came with strings attached -- strings which opened the way for the penetration of western capital.
Like capitalists everywhere, the new bourgeoisie of Russia and eastern Europe are no doubt still saying that the good times will roll tomorrow.
But under capitalism the good times are always better for some than for others and in any case they seldom roll for very long before the system enters yet another of its cyclical downturns.
The western leaders are therefore very concerned. They know capitalism is not going to deliver the good life to the majority of people anywhere.
Most of all they worry that the people of the former socialist countries will remember the days when the children enjoved summer camp holidays, when people had secure jobs, when they did not live in fear of crime and when the old could live comfortably on their pensions and sit in the park with their friends. They worry that socialism will not just show it's alive but kicking too.
JOHN MAJOR gave the third of his of pre-election "presidential"-style speeches last week and this time he was fishing for the votes of higher income parents.
He promised to lift educational standards in schools by setting more targets, more league tables, giving the sack to so-called bad teachers and taking power away from 20 local authorities the Tories consider to be low-performers. He did not pledge more resources for state schools.
League tables, he said, would be published for seven and 11 year old pupils as well as those for GCSEs, and all schools would be made to set targets for each age group.
The government would send inspectors into local authorities considered in need of improvement.
Of the 20 authorities mentioned, 19 are Labour controlled and not surprisingly they include those struggling to cope with much of the social distress and poverty caused by unemployment, low wages and spending cuts.
If they don't then measure-up the powers of the education commitees could be suspended This is a further attack on local democracy and control and should be vigorously resisted.
He referred to his proposals as "parent power reforms" -- pressing on with the Tory argument that competition will force unpopular schools to pull their socks up and thus provide higher standards.
But it doesn't work like that. Children from the poorest farnilies living in run-down inner city areas have little choice. Too often it is not the parents in those areas who can pick and choose but the most popular schools which select the pupils. The rejected pupils are forced into the less popular schools.
Nor does the "parent-power" competition approach address any of the real problems facing under-privileged schools. A lack of resources and money is a large factor.
Where a school has a high proportion of well-off parents the shortages in education funding can be offset by parental contributions. Where most parents are on low incomes they cannot afford to pay for education twice - once in taxes and again at the Parents' Association.
And it is absurd to imagine that education can be improved by putting schools under pressure and subjecting teachers to more visits from the Ofsted "inquisition". All that does is to raise the level of stress in the workplace and undermine co-operation and team work in the schools and between schools.
The Tories also announced last week that they want a shake-up of the A-level exams. They want fewer examining boards and the introduction of a "Subsidiary level" exam taken after one year's study to run alongside the existing two-year course.
The subsidiary exam could then be followed by either transferring to the traditional two-year course or by taking extra subjects, including vocational ones.
Using graduate unemployment as an excuse, the government is also attacking the funding of higher education. Basically it is trying to argue that there is no point in funding students at university if there are not enough "graduate" jobs for them go to. This idea and the A-level shakeup seem designed to tailor state education more closely to the requirements of the bosses.
They want more vocational skills and more targeted courses -- it was not for nothing that under the Tories the departments of education and employment were merged.
A full and rounded education that is more than just learning basic skills and training for work would, if these ideas prevail, become the exclusive property of the well-to-do.
Workers in education are, like many other public sector workers, fighting back.
A pay offer to university staff unions was described by TGWU national officer Chris Kaufman as an "absolute triumph". The offer agreed at conciliation service ACAS last month will give 7.3 per cent rise to manual workers and 5.8 per cent to lecturers over a two-year period.The unions had taken strike action at the end of last year to press their award.
THE INLAND Revenue is about to introduce its self-assessment system at the beginning of April. So the New Worker interviewed an active member ofthe PTC civil service union to find out what it means for the working class.
Question: Who is affected?
Answer: Anyone whonow currently gets a tax return form. This will be mainly the self-employed, including subbies in the building trade, company directors and quite a lot of pensioners, especially those who have little bits and bobs of savings in different schemes, company pensions and so on.
Q: What will these people have to do now?
A: They will have to fill in a lengthy tax return form and get it in on time. If it is not in on time there are penalties at around eight per cent interest per day.
You don't have to do your own sums. If you get the tax return form in early -- by next September -- the Inland Revenue will do the calculations for you.
If you do it all for yourself, the deadline is next January. If then you don't do the calculations the form will be sent back to you as incomplete but the deadline will still apply.
Q: What if someone makes a mistake?
A: Tax workers are meant to check -- but there won't be enough of us to check every form thoroughly -- make amendments and inform people of the amendments.
The problems will arise from the size of the return forms. The current tax form is around six pages. The new ones will be 10 or 12 pages for the basic form and then there will be all sorts of supplements for odds and ends. There will be explanation leaflets but these will be long and complicated.
There will be a massive amount of work for people with lots of little bits and pieces of income from different sources.
The joke in the office at the moment is that people will need a parcel carrier service to return their forms.
It gets rid of revenue jobs, at least it's supposed to. But there are still a lot of jobs there to be done.
The government says eventually all we'll need will be untrained staff to tap in the information from the tax returns into computers. This sort of work would be totally mind-numbing.
But they're rushing the thing in. Staff have been given only one day's training to operate the new system. Originally they were going to give us one-and-a-half days.
The new computer system is not compatible with anything we've already been using. It's quite good when it works but the trouble is it keeps crashing.
Q: How is morale in the office?
A: Our current work state is terrible. In London now there's is six to eight weeks correspondence in hand -- the worse state for ages.
They're throwing overtime at us right now. Suddenly they've found some money in their central budget for it. But we suspect this has come from the Treasury to keep the poicy from falling apart.
People will now have to keep all their financial records.
Q: What happens if someone, for example a pensioner, loses a vital piece of paper?
A: If they haven't got the information we ask them to guess what income they're going to get from that source and then notify us ofthe real figure when they get it. You can always get copies of most financial documents from wherever you got them in the first place.
If they guess wrong, then they get another tax bill.
Company directors will employ accountants. If you can afford a decent accountant, you're OK. But there's a lot of dodgy ones out there who don't know what they're doing. And they do charge.
We've had reports of public accountants charging £2OO per one A4 sheet for refund calculations so God alone knows how much they would charge for a full tax return.
A few years ago one of the major high-street banks was charging £50 to do an ordinary tax return form. But now the form is so much bigger and more complex, it's anybody's guess what the charge will be.
Q: Can people turn to the revenue itself for help?"
A: You can always go to the enquiry desk at your local office -- though for some people now that's quite a long trek.
But don't expect a quick answer. Staff cuts mean there'll be very long queues.
Q: Will it be easier for some to cheat on their taxes?
A: Some company directors will guess what they think their taxes ought to be and then do their accounts to fit that figure. But then they always have.
Q: Do you think the system will work for the government?
A: No Idon't. They're trying to copy the American Internal Revenue system, but on the cheap.
For a start they've made a big mistake about the numbers of staff needed. The government did not appreciate that much of our work is always two or three years in arrears. Now everyone is rushing to get up to date by the deadline. The workload is amazing. We're still chasing a few cases from the 80s.
In a few years time it will be chaos. And when the system starts to fall apart there'll be attempts to try to get rid of income tax altogether, saying "it's all mismanaged". Kenneth Clarke has not chosen the number-plates "KILL TAX" for nothing.
They want to replace it just with indirect taxes like VAT, where poor people pay proportionately much more.
All the company directors on the 40 percent rate will love that.
Q: How does the union feel about it?
A: The union leadership considered refusing to co-operate with it but dropped this policy as part of a pay deal. Some of us believe this was unwise.
A WEEK is a long time in the class struggle. After a five-day strike which brought Czech Railways to a standstill, members of the main rail union OSZ and three smaller unions returned to work last Sunday.
They had taught the Klaus government, the dilettante railway management that, despite six years of market economics, anti-union legislation, union bashing and job losses, the Czech trade union movement is still a force to be reckoned with and capable of defending both its right to strike and winning its demands.
Many workers were politicised during the strike and, as the foreign media noted, a new stage has been opened in the struggle against the right-wing Klaus government.
By the fifth day of the strike (Saturday), the government was reeling as miners stood poised to strike in solidarity after a Prague court declared the strike illegal.
Power workers pledged solidarity action, the independent agricultural workers' union threatened to block railway facilities with farm machinery, and a special conference of the main trade union centre, the two-million member CMKOS, launched a solidarity fund.
At the same conference some delegates called for a general strike in support of the rail workers.
Typical of the mood among workers was a spontaneous one hour sympathy strike on Friday by 50 workers at a privately owned company in north Moravia, which was joined by the firm's management.
There was widespread public support for the rail workers, whose strike was essentially a political one.
Their original demand was for an integrated state transport policy as an alternative to rundown and the loss of 40 per cent of the 100,000 railway jobs by the year 2000.
But as the strike extended after the initial two-day walkout, three other main demands emerged.
The unions called for the dismissal of the state-owned Czech Railways "incompetent" senior management a halt to the selling off of railway property and privatisation before adoption of a realistic restructuring programme, and no victimisation of strikers.
In the end they called off the strike after the government agreed to produce a draft state transport policy by the end of May, not to victimise strikers, to carry out a review of management's past performance and to consult the rail unions when preparing a restructuring programme.
As the social democratic daily Pravo concedes in its headline today: "The government has met most of the rail workers' demands".
The task of the trade union movement now is to ensure that the government honours the backto-work agreement and that the terms of the state transport policy and restructuring correspond to the interests of the railway and other workers.
The rail workers were also backed by the Communist and Social Democrat parties, which made attempts to force an emergency debate in Parliament.
Their efforts were blocked by deputies of the ruling right-wing minority coalition, assisted by the absence of a number of oppo sition deputies in a key vote.
The strike's momentum picked up dramatically after a lower Prague court ruled that the strike was illegal, citing post- 1989 collective bargaining legislation which restricts strike action to a specific stage in the negotiation of annual pay and conditions contracts.
But the rail unions ignored the court's ruling, pointing out that the Czech Republic's Bill of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms recognised an unconditional right to strike.
The strike then turned into a battle over the right to strike, which the trade union movement won hands down, with the rail unions at the same time winning most of their demands.
The trade unions in Austria issued a statement of solidarity, in which they said the Prague court's ruling illegalising the strike was a violation of international conventions.
A shaken Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus denounced the rail workers' action as party politically motivated and deplored the losses sustained by industry as a result of the strike.
These were indeed heavy, as coal piled up at railheads and attempts were made to move raw materials and goods by much more costly road transport.
But these losses, estimated at a billion Czech crowns ($37 million), are the price the country has to pay for an intransigent government's failure to take the demands of the rail workers' seriously.Back to index
THE NUCLEAR Installations Inspectorate has delayed plans by the prison service to take over a former Pontin's holiday campnear Morecambe in Lancashire for use as a prison because there are no full-scale evacuation plans in the event of a serious nuclear accident.
The camp is situated near one of the two Heysham nuclear power plants and falls within its "evacuation vicinity".
The inspectorate has told the prison service that full evacuation plans must be lodged before the plan can go ahead.
The prison service also faced another setback when Weymouth councillors in Dorset blocked plans to moor a prison ship in Portland harbour, Dorset.
New Tory sentencing policies mean the prison population is increasing rapidly -- recently by 1,000 a month but last week by a record 400 and is due to reach 60,000 by March.
If the prison service runs out of options it is possible that between 400 and 500 inmates may have to be held in police cells during March.
Prison service director general Richard Tilt said: "It means police officers are taken away from the fight against crime to look after them, and it is hugely expensive.
"The police charge us £300 a night for each inmate they look after -- that is six times the cost of keeping them in prison."
The Scottish Prison Officers' Association last week condemned government plans for the building of Scotland's first private prison.
Three consortiums have been short-listed to build the privately financed jail near Kilmarnock in Ayrshire.Back to index