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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Moscow's Management By Crisis

Washington, 27 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Despite expectations that Boris Yeltsin's return to health would lead to a dramatic change in the way he does business, Moscow again this week appears to be responding to a chronic problem only when it threatens to balloon into a political crisis.

In last ten days, senior Russian officials have announced a series of plans to pay the mounting backlog of unpaid wages across the country. Last week, deputy premier Anatoly Chubais told Siberian miners that the government would pay all back wages by the end of the year.

Earlier this week, labor minister Gennady Melikian told workers at key defense plants that the Russian government had allocated enough money to pay them half of the back wages that the authorities now owe them.

And Wednesday, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin announced that the government would pay out some $2.1 billion in back wages during March alone and that Moscow would meet miners' demands for $1.1 billion in wages and subsidies for 1997.

The problem of wage arrears has been growing in Russia for months if not years, and the difficulties arising from it have been the subject of Russian media attention for almost that long.

Given the magnitude of the problem and the media attention that it has attracted, the Russian government might reasonably have been expected to have taken these steps as part of a general strategy for overcoming the country's current economic difficulties.

But as was the case before Yeltsin became ill, the Russian government is acting now precisely because it is threatened by a country-wide protest strike scheduled to take place today.

The organizers of this one-day action predicted that as many as 17 million Russians will march to demand the payment of back wages that have gone unpaid for months.

And some of Yeltsin's political opponents, including Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, have indicated that they hope to use this action to challenge the current Yeltsin government and its new reformist recruits.

In response to that challenge, the Yeltsin regime has taken three steps, none of which is likely to be very convincing. First, according to the Moscow newspaper "Kommersant," the authorities have declared their solidarity with the strike and are "openly supporting" its demands. But it is precisely the actions or more precisely non-actions of the government that have created the current crisis.

Second, as the same paper noted, the Russian government is doing everything it can to shift the blame for the non-payment of wages onto local officials and company directors. But even where the latter share some of the blame, these lower-level officials and private entrepreneurs frequently cannot pay their employees because the Russian government has not paid them.

And third, the Russian government has launched another campaign of promises to pay up. But Yeltsin made similar promises in the past, promises that were not kept. And as a result, Russians are increasingly cynical about his plans for the future.

The current effort by the Russian government may in fact reduce the number of people who take to the streets today. But unless the authorities follow through and change the way they conduct politics, there are likely to be more such crises in the future rather than fewer.

On the one hand, by behaving the same way now that he has behaved in the past, Yeltsin has shown that his return to health has not been accompanied by a change in the way he governs. The Russian president still appears to prefer to let things go until they become a crisis and then to intervene in a dramatic way. Now as in the past, he has often been extremely effective at such times but at the cost of being largely inactive at others.

And on the other hand, Yeltsin's continuing approach to government sends a powerful message to both his own bureaucracy and to those who oppose him. To the former, it implies that inactive may be the best way to proceed. And to the latter, it indicates that pushing things to a crisis may be the only hope.

To the extent that Yeltsin continues as he appears to be doing and that either or both groups reach such conclusions, the immediate future of politics in Russia appears to be anything but stable and the possibilities for the successful management of sustained economic and political reforms anything but bright.