Moscow, 8 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In Soviet times, a popular joke expressing the sentiment of workers to their symbolic salaries was: "the state pretends to pay us and we pretend to work." Everybody's paycheck was tiny, and the really important thing was the extent of the perks (perquisites) coming with one's position. The difference in salary between factory workers and Central Committee members was not remarkable, but the difference in perks was incommensurable. In post-communist Russia, the joke, at least as far trade union and opposition leaders are concerned, could be: "the state pretends to be trying to solve the payment crisis, and we pretend to protest its failure."
This reflects the frustration and the desperation of the thousands of underemployed and unpaid workers across Russia. Not to mention pensioners, who, as many cynically say, have become simply "not needed" in a country where frail political institutions still deprive the dispossessed of a voice able to influence civic action.
Mounting wage and pension arrears may have been the formal justification used by Russia's President Boris Yeltsin when he sacked Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and his entire government March 23. However, on the eve of tomorrow's nationwide day of protest, the feeling is that trade union leaders are showing a remarkable understanding of the Kremlin's effort to settle the wages crisis, and, despite declarations, seem less sensitive to the frustration of thousands of desperate workers throughout the country.
Workers' rallies in front of administrative offices and in factories have become a tradition in Russia in two different periods of the year, March and November. But previous rallies, as well as vociferous parliamentary battles with declarative slogans "for the good of the people" have showed the trade union and Communist leaders' conspicuous lack of real political muscle.
As one Communist parliamentary deputy admitted recently in corridor conversations, while criticizing the Party's leadership, "in the morning we come here, threaten to vote again this and that, saying that we want to protect people's interest, and, after our protest, we leave the building to have lunch in a nice restaurant in downtown Moscow. No result, of course, but we look like doing our job in front of TV cameras."
Last March, trade union leaders promised on the eve of a national protest day that they would bring as many as 20-million workers to the streets. The number of protesters fell far short of that, and showed the political weakness of the leaders and their inability -- but, many called it unwillingness -- to create effective collective action. Spontaneous rallies, led by outraged women and enraged workers, outnumbered the official trade union meetings.
Russian media today criticized the trade unions. The majority of articles on tomorrow's protest note that Mikhail Shamakov, the head of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions has announced he supports Sergei Kiriyenko's nomination for prime minister - the nomination that Communists leaders have called unacceptable, even following yesterday's Kremlin roundtable to discuss the nomination.
Yeltsin agreed to the round-table last week, during a meeting with parliamentary leaders, and most observers said the meeting was more a "face-saving exercise," particularly for the Communist and nationalist-dominated State Duma, furious of not having been consulted before the government reshuffle.
Shmakov, who has met Kiriyenko twice in the last two weeks, noted that Kiriyenko has discussed the problem of wage arrears with union leaders, and has instructed the Finance Ministry to allocate to regional governments the money to pay debts to state employees in time to reach unpaid workers by tomorrow.
Kiriyenko, obviously aware the nationwide protest could influence the parliamentary vote scheduled Friday on his nomination, said, without elaborating, the government had found funds to settle wage arrears. He added that the government's work "will not end April 9," and said plans on financial support for coal miners and settling government debts to the defense industry would soon be completed.
Shmakov, speaking yesterday at a meeting between trade union and business leaders, said that 80 percent of estimated wage arrears are owed by employers rather than by the government. Despite Shamakov's conciliatory tone, about three thousand unpaid defense industry workers and representatives of defense industry trade unions yesterday picketed government headquarters. They waved signs and banners, including slogans saying that "those who destroyed the country must answer for it," and "our patience is at an end."
Yuri Stichenok, the protest organizer, said, "it is not just that the non-payment situation hasn't gotten better in the past year. It has gotten worse." Some of the protesters advanced political demands, and repeated calls for the government to meet its financial obligations toward the deteriorating defense industry.
Acting Deputy Prime Minister Yakov Urinson, met the protest leaders, and told them the government has appropriated funds in the new federal budget to pay the arrears. In February, officials pledged that this year the government will pay about $1.7 billion it owes to defense enterprises.
According to the state Statistic Committee, wage arrears in the ten main sectors of the economy, at the beginning of March, reached more than $9 billion. And, Pension Fund Chairman Vasily Barchuk said last week that pension arrears totaled about $130 million as of April 1. He said payments have been delayed in 30 Russian regions. Barchuk said contributions to the Pension Fund fell sharply in the first months of this years. He attributed the decline in part to a Constitutional Court decision, striking down an article of the Civil Code, requiring employers to pay wages before taxes.
So, who is to be blamed? The heritage of the Soviet past, the government, the employers, or, as ultra-nationalists put it, an "international conspiracy against Russia?"
Valentina Burkova is a former engineer who left her job at a defense plant following repeated delays in her meager wages. Now, she works as manager of a newsstand. "I think I was lucky to find this unqualified job. And, I think that, as far as the salaries and pensions are concerned, all our politicians, show us only one thing: they are all thieves and they just don't care, otherwise they would have tried to set up a social network to help workers in useless industries to requalify." According to Burkova, "People, especially in the regions, will protest tomorrow out of frustration, understanding that protest brings almost nothing in this situation. But we all understand that rallies serve mainly as a reminder of our existence, otherwise, politicians will simply forget about workers altogether."