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Russia: Labor Unions Stage Massive by Limited Protest

Moscow, 28 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Russian trade union leaders say that yesterday's protest was the largest action in the history of Russia's labor movement. But it is doubtful whether it will make much difference in the country�s economic operations.

Hundreds of thousands of Russian workers and pensioners took to the streets from the Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok to Moscow. Their protest was both economic and political.

It was a protest against the government�s failure to pay back wage totaling more than 9 billion dollars as well as its arrears on pensions. But it also featured banners and speeches calling for the resignation of President Boris Yeltsin, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais.

The turnout was lower than predicted by the Federation of Independent Trade Unions (FITU), Russia�s largest independent labor organization. Its leader, Mikail Shmakov, said at a news conference in Moscow today that more than five million strikers from some 16,000 industries and more than 20 million protesters had taken part in the action.

Figures provided by the Interior Ministry and the media were much lower. The ministry said that less than two million people had joined the nationwide demonstrations. The government-sponsored news agencies said that most the rallies had featured "purely economic demands."

The protest was largely peaceful; no incidents were reported. But the government appeared prepared for the worst. Police was very much present, with some 16,000 policemen deployed in the Russian capital alone.

The daily "Moskovsky Komsomolets" today said �Russia proved that, thank God, is not Albania." Another Moscow daily, the English-language "Moscow Times," said one of the reasons accounting for the peaceful character of protest might have been the proverbial passivity of Russians and the political weakness of workers in Russia's depressed industries.

But most observers agree that the existing disarray among Russia's opposition parties makes it difficult to mount a coherent and strong movement capable of permanently altering Russian politics.

The wage crisis has been a rallying point for the anti-Yeltsin opposition, particularly for the communists. But their leader, Gennady Zyuganov, played only a marginal role yesterday, although rallies in Moscow and other cities appeared to be dominated by middle-aged Communist Party supporters carrying red banners.