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Press Review: Muted May Days Reflect New Era

  • Don Hill

Prague, May 2 (RFE/RL) - In Russia, in Germany, in Mexico, quiet May Day observances yesterday attracted press scrutiny.

Russia's traditional celebration of May 1 took on the political cast this year of a national holiday in the West at campaign time. Phil Reeves writes today from Moscow in the British newspaper The Independent: "Had the vote-huntry Boris Yeltsin peeped over the parapets of the Kremlin at 11 a.m. yesterday he would have wondered if (his reelection campaign efforts to date) had achieved anything at all. Sweeping across the river Moskva towards his fortified seat of power was a tide of Red flags carried by thousands of his opponents. It was May Day and, with the election season well under way, the Communists were not going to miss the chance to parade their foot soldiers."

Carol J. Williams, writing in today's Los Angeles Times, saw the days events differently. She says: "If (yesterday's) dampened celebrations of May Day can be regarded as a straw poll of voters ahead of June presidential elections, the forces for democracy can breathe a sigh of relief. Rallies to note the Communist workers' holiday drew relatively small and docile crowds, in contrast to the hordes of angry anti-reform demonstrators that had been predicted. Even many of those who braved rain to march under the red flags and banners of the Soviet Union seemed more intent on expressing their disenchantment with post- Cold War Russia than a deep conviction to change it."

In the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, Alan Philps writes today from Moscow: "The Soviet-era May Day holiday was turned into a festival of electioneering yesterday as both President Yeltsin and his Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov, claimed to be the workers' friend.... But Mr. Zyuganov's speech was hardly brimming with confidence. He said the Kremlin was bound to falsify or cancel the June 16 election and promised that the communists would fight on, even if deprived of victory.... The crowd seemed little confident of victory and could not find the voice for the day's slogan - 'Russia, Motherland, Zyuganov.' "

The New Yor Times' Michael R. Gordon writes today: "The Soviet anthem blared through the loudspeakers. And the old Soviet flag was raised high, as the presidential candidate Gennadi Zyuganov sought to use Russia's May Day celebration to tap a wellspring of nostalgia for the Communist cause. But Zyuganov was not the only candidate who took to the streets (yesterday). Just a few blocks away, President Boris Yeltsin stood in a cold drizzle to read a speech to a rally of trade unionists, many of whom appeared openly uninterested.... Yeltsin also danced a slow jig with a Russian folk dancer. Displaying a touch of humor, he also tried to buy a doll of his political ally, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov of Moscow, only to learn that only traditional, nonpolitical dolls were available. May Day in Russia has long been a time for marches and stolid patriotic themes. But with presidential elections set for June 16, (yesterday's) holiday became a duel of rival political rallies and photo-ops."

Chrystia Freeland in the British newspaper Financial Times looks at May Day. She writes today: "Across much of the former USSR, May Day, once a ritualized tribute to Soviet rule, yesterday was transformed into an occasion for passionate but largely peaceful political demonstrations.... In St. Petersburg, which supported reformers more strongly than any other Russian city in parliamentary elections last year, an even bigger crowd of communist supporters took to the streets to celebrate the workers' holiday.... More than 30,000 people reportedly (turned out) in neighboring Belarus, many of them protesting at deteriorating economic conditions and some voicing their opposition to the strong-arm rule of President Alexander Lukashenko."

In the U.S. newspaper Newsday, Susan Sachs writes today: "For 74 years, the first of May was an official Soviet holiday, an ideological festival celebrating the ideal of international labor solidarity and might. On Red Square, the beefy bosses of the Soviet Union gazed out over a seemingly endless procession of chanting red-shirted marchers. It was orderly. It was disciplined. The party was all-powerful. But in this boisterous Russian election season, May Day has been decommissioned as an ideological celebration and reborn as an ode to spring. Not only was Red Square closed, ostensibly for security reasons, but only a few thousand people braved a light rain to join the rambling Communist and trade union parades through central Moscow. Instead, hundreds of thousands of Muscovites celebrated private property and political openness."

"Germany bids adieu to social consensus," writes Dagman Deckstein in today's Suddeutsche Zeitung. He says: " 'High time for change.' That was a fine slogan for the German trades union confederation (DGB) to adopt for May Day. But change has already come. So why are union activists who held May Day speeches so upset about the fact that Germany's conservative government and employers' associations want 'a different republic?' Whether anyone wants it or not, the different republic is already here. It currently is saying a tearful farewell to the old model of social consensus, from the round table philosophy of a state run by associations. No raised fists and no harping about the good, old, lazy days when the redistribution machinery functioned so well will change that fact.... Great expectations were not met, the model placed too many demands on the unions and it is no good for the new age. The new era does not call for consensus, but for conflict where necessary, and for responsibility and brave decisions. High time too."

Writing from Mexico City in today's The New York Times, Julia Preston says: "Dissident labor unions staged a huge but peaceful May Day march through downtown Mexico City (yesterday), in a show of workers' growing rejection of the official labor movement. For the second year in a row, Fidel Velazquez Sanchez, the 96-year-old leader of the major government-allied labor confederation, called off the traditional May Day march, attempting to ban all public demonstrations by laborers. Confederation officials said they canceled the march because they feared street clashes between pro-government and anti-government marchers. But with Mexico still struggling under the effects of an economic slowdown that cost more than a million workers their jobs, there was also the risk of an embarrassingly weak showing by official unions. About 40 unions defied the ban, turning out a river of workers that flowed continuously for four hours along 25 blocks in the center of the capital."