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Western Press Review: Russia's Nationwide Strike

Prague, 28 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The western press looks at yesterday's nationwide (but limited) strike in Russia called over unpaid wages and pensions and ponders what it indicates about the attitude of average Russians.

THE LONDON GUARDIAN: Russians Care About Economy, Not NATO

An editorial in today's London Guardian says the demonstrations show that "Russians care more about the economy than NATO's future." The paper says "The hardships suffered by most Russian people may, perversely, be helping Boris Yeltsin to survive. Yesterday's protests over wage arrears and overdue pensions show that for millions of ordinary Russians, empty pay packets and missing checks are far more important than what may have been conceded in last week's Helsinki summit."

Even so, the paper says "Yesterday, even the demonstrations by the unpaid lacked vigor. The turnout was well below the 20 million forecast by trade-union organizers. This is partly because people hope against hope that the new cabinet will achieve something. It is also because people have become fatalistic. Their mood is less threatening to Mr. Yeltsin, but in the long run must be more harmful to Russia's future."

In a separate piece, the Guardian reports today the results of a market research study that shows "the average Russian has far more disposable income than official statistics suggest, and in some ways Russia is as prosperous as Greece or Portugal." The study discloses that "because of lower rents and utilities charges, tax evasion, and the absence of consumer debt, Russians often had more to spend that people in the West."


In a news analysis in the U.S. newspaper The Christian Science Monitor, Peter Ford writes today that "The number of marchers and strikers fell well short of organizers' predictions...and the day passed peacefully." But he says "The scale of the protests and the heavy news media coverage they attracted have drawn unprecedented attention to a crisis that had until now been bubbling below the surface." He adds "It was perhaps Russians' sense that the protests would not solve the problem that kept so many of them at home."

THE WASHINGTON POST: Russians Long-Suffering?

Lee Hockstader analyzes the protests today in The Washington Post, writing that "Everyone in Russia agrees (the government salary and pension arrears are) an outrage. Yet in towns and cities from the Pacific port of Vladivostok to Moscow and St. Petersburg in the west, the thousands who marched in a low-key, one-day protest strike seemed a faint reflection of the social calamity regularly described by the government's Communist and nationalist opponents."

He writes "Many economists say Russians' real standard of living, though it varies according to region and industry, is often not as bad as official statistics suggest, largely because Russians lie to tax collectors to conceal their incomes." Hockstader says "There are other explanations for why salary delays have not triggered a social explosion in Russia. Some cite Russians' generally low expectations of their leaders. Others believe Russian history has produced a people who are particularly well adapted to suffering."

The writer says: "Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, whose promises to solve the problem have come to naught, declared this week that just over one-fifth of back wages and pensions will be paid off by the end of March. Few people believed him, but few were predicting a new revolution either."

THE NEW YORK TIMES: Government's Last Chance?

New York Times writer Michael Specter says in a news analysis from Moscow today that "Many (Russian) simply stayed home, so conditioned to bad news that they had become convinced no solutions were possible." He writes "Many people here believe that if (Boris Nemtsov, the new first deputy prime minister) and his colleagues in the government fail this time they may not get another chance. And their task is formidable. They must begin to raise taxes more efficiently in order to have the revenue needed to pay people. But few enterprises are willing to pay their fair share of taxes, and the country has not developed its enforcement mechanisms so that people feel the need to pay."

NEWSDAY: Crowds Broad-based, Angry With Government

In the U.S. newspaper Newsday, Susan Sachs writes today in an analysis that "Unlike many previous demonstrations, the protests around Russia featured ordinary workers, school teachers and students in addition to the usual complement of elderly communists hauling pictures of Lenin and pining for the defunct Soviet Union." She writes "The signs carried by protesters around the country made it clear that many saw the demonstrations as a protest against the government."

Sachs says "As they trudged slowly through the streets of Russian cities, many shivering in worn winter coats and carrying hand-made signs calling for Yeltsin's resignation, the workers presented a telling picture of frustration, exhaustion and mounting anger."

THE LONDON INDEPENDENT: Apathetic Russians Don't Trust Unions

Phil Reeves writes today in a London Independent news analysis that "Public trust in trade unions is also low, not least because they were seen as an integral part of the Soviet machinery of state. Apathy and fatalism also played a role."


In The London Daily Telegraph, Alan Philps says "The day which was supposed to shake the Kremlin turned out to be more of a display of the legendary Russian capacity for absorbing suffering."

THE BOSTON GLOBE: Russia's Vicious Economic Circle

The Boston Globe's David Filipov writes today from Moscow in an analysis that "The Kremlin's inability to pay workers stems from the fiscal vicious circle of Russia's disorderly transition to a market economy: Moscow has no money to pay wages because it is unable to collect taxes from cash-starved local governments and deeply indebted businesses, who in turn say they cannot pay taxes until the government pays wages. As a result, factories pay workers in goods, or put them on forced leave, or ignore them altogether. Workers, teachers, even soldiers have responded (by) taking on odd jobs in Russia's formative and chaotic service and trade industries in order to survive, while the large, Soviet-style enterprises that are their official workplaces slowly die off."