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For Most Russians, Reforms Mean Uncertain Future

Prague, Jan. 12 (RFE/RL) - Russia's December parliamentary elections confirmed a trend that was evident following the country's 1993 Duma elections: after nearly four years of market reforms, many Russians are hurting and few are enjoying the fruits of economic liberalization.

And yet, from walking around the streets of Moscow, Paris, London and Prague, it is apparent that reforms have spawned a significant class of well-to-do Russians. Not all are gangsters. Across Russia itself, Western companies say an increasing number of households are buying their brand-names products. Macro-economists predict an upswing this year in the Gross Domestic Product. Faced with these conflicting indicators, some reformists have hailed the emergence of a new middle class in Russia - while others speak of a "mafia" business elite that has pushed the former Soviet "intelligentsia" of scientists, engineers, teachers and doctors into poverty.

The truth lies somewhere in-between. All sides in Russia can now use statistics to support their arguments because recent reforms have fragmented society. Russia's State Statistical Committee (Goskomstat) put the average wage at 577,000 rubles in December 1995 (about $125 per month) and the subsistence minimum at 286,000 rubles (about $62). In Moscow, where the highest-paying jobs are concentrated, the average wage was more than twice as high and the subsistence minimum was 95 dollars. That contrasts some depressed industrial regions where people have been not been paid at all in several months.

But few Russians exist on their wages alone. For this reason, there is a large discrepancy between wages and total income earned. In a poll conducted last September, the Russian public opinion think-tank Vtsiom asked people if they supplemented their incomes by working outside their primary jobs. Nearly a quarter of respondents said they had second jobs. About half said they grew food at their summer homes (dachas) or on private plots to improve their standard of living. And nearly a quarter said they had no access to a second activity to bring in more money - a figure which corresponds to the quarter of Russians classified as living below the official poverty level.

The correlation is not scientifically valid, it is becoming clearer that Russians who exist only on their pensions or salaries, especially in the state sector, are the most likely to find themselves impoverished.

Indeed, this is where the greatest rift has occurred in Russian society. Teachers without dachas, urban scientists without rural relatives to send them fresh produce and pensioners without families, are among the net losers in the new Russia. The young can find jobs either trading goods or working for a foreign company - especially if they live in large cities and speak foreign languages. But a doctor with a car can make more money in Moscow as a taxi driver than at his operating table. A manual worker, provided he can work after hours for himself, can easily supplement his income. But nuclear engineers used to the perks of Soviet power may have to learn a more marketable trade.

Reforms have had a deep and sometimes paradoxical social impact. Some former communists have become bankers, while many coal miners who once helped bring Boris Yeltsin to power now back the Communist Party. Most Russians manage to survive, as they always have, with a little trading, a little farming, a shot of vodka and lots of black humor. Those who are lucky enough to have marketable skills and are adaptable, are making some extra money. But the price of not making it in Russia now means a steep slide into poverty.

No one can say when Russia will emerge from this transition period, or whether the end result, when it does emerge, will have been worth it. In any case, the June 16 presidential election will offer Russians a chance to pass judgment on the past four years of economic upheaval. If the high voter turnout in December's parliamentary elections are anything to go by, judgment will be passed.