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Russia: Nationwide Strikes And Protests Expected Tomorrow

Moscow, 26 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian trade union leaders say that tomorrow millions of people will take to the streets to demand payment of back wages and major changes to economic policy.

The Federation of Independent Trade Unions, which is spearheading the protests, says it expects 20 million people, including seven million strikers, to take part in marches, pickets of government buildings, and rallies across the country to demand payment of back wages totaling more than 50,000 rubles, or nearly $9 billion. The government owes another $3 billion in pension arrears.

The demonstration will provide a first real test for Russia's new cabinet. The government has embarked on a campaign to present a fresher, can-do image. That has raised hopes that the economy can be turned around.

But for the time being, the main task is to head off the strikes and protests. President Boris Yeltsin, according to his spokesman, yesterday called the wage arrears crisis "intolerable" and called on federal and regional authorities, trade unions and enterprises to take, as he put it, "concerted" action to solve the problem.

Yeltsin is due to meet with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and newly-appointed first deputy prime ministers Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov later today to discuss the non-payments crisis. But few expect last-minute proposals or payment pledges to persuade defiant trade union leaders to cancel the day of protest.

The planned protests enjoy widespread support. Reformist Yabloko faction leader Grigory Yavlinsky has backed the strikes, saying the government needs to be sent a loud warning signal. Yeltsin himself called the planned action "legitimate" during his state of the union address earlier this month, when he pledged to reshuffle the cabinet to revitalize economic reforms.

Other government ministers have expressed sympathy with the strikers. Minister for Labor and Social Affairs Yuri Melikhan was shown on Russian television yesterday saying the government has no arguments with the protesters. "We agree - we need to pay wages on time," he said.

Former Economics Minister Yevgeny Yasin told a press conference on Monday that urgent measures were needed to rescue the economy. He said Russia is facing its most difficult crisis since 1991.

Despite expressions of sympathy, Russian authorities are gearing up for any possible violence during tomorrow's protests. The Interior Ministry has mobilized thousands of anti-riot police to be on hand. Russia's NTV television on Monday showed a group of riot police training with mock demonstrators.

Mikhail Shmakov, who heads the Federation of Independent Trade Unions, has pledged that the protests will remain peaceful and said his union has taken measures to prevent provocative acts. Nevertheless, hard-line communist party activists have added to fears that the situation could spin out of control by comparing Russia's economic plight to Albania, which has been torn apart by civil war sparked by an economic crisis.

However, many observers believe trade union leaders are beginning to lose their grip. Russia experienced a long winter of sporadic protests over unpaid wages, but in many cases teachers and coal miners went on strike despite pleas to the contrary from trade union leaders. At the same time, trade union leaders have in the past promised a higher turnout for nation-wide actions than they were able to deliver.

Tomorrow's protests will most likely do little more than raise the heat on the government to pay back wages and pensions. But Russia is not expected to experience an economic recovery anytime soon.

Ironically, the new government will have to take unpopular steps this year if it plans to take structural reform of the economy seriously. Restructuring of enterprises and a stepped up pace of bankruptcies will only lead to more unemployment.

Likewise, widely expected cut backs in social benefits, coupled with increasing pressure on the population to pay taxes, will mean most ordinary Russians will face continued financial hardships for the foreseeable future.