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Russia: Yeltsin Brings Promises Of Funding To St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg, 3 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - President Boris Yeltsin has promised to bring a bulging purse of federal funding to St. Petersburg when he visits Friday for his first trip to the city in a year.

But even as Yeltsin pledges to open up the federal coffers -- this time to help St. Petersburg's two most prestigious cultural icons, the Hermitage and the Russian Museum -- money promised one year ago during a campaign swing through the city has still not materialized.

During Friday's visit, Yeltsin is scheduled to stop at the Kronshtadt naval base. And he is to visit the Russian Museum, which next March celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Yeltsin is scheduled to convene a session of the Presidential Council for Culture at the Russian Museum, which was founded by Russia's last Tsar Nickolas II in March 1898. There, the President is expected to sign a decree marking the museum's 100th anniversary.

And, the museum's director, Vladimir Gusov, tells RFE/RL that in addition to laying plans for the Russian Museum's centenary celebration next March, the decree will also mandate that it receive all of the 222 billion rubles allotted to it in the 1997 federal budget. Yeltsin has also ordered that 20 billion rubles be given to the Russian Museum from the Presidential reserve fund to increase its already considerable art collection.

The museum has received only 35 billion rubles from the Federal budget this year, slightly more than 15 percent of the amount allocated. Last year, it received only 21 percent of its budget, Director Gusov said.

Last October -- citing a financial crisis, including a debt equivalent to more than $11 million -- the Russian Museum threatened to close its doors to the public.

While that threat was ultimately not carried out, it prompted a protest among the city's other museums. In October, members of the Association of St. Petersburg Museum Professionals threatened to take the stage before the opening of Antigone at the Bolshoi Drama Theater to read a statement of protest directed at Yeltsin, his Government and the Federal Assembly.

Gusov, for his part, is optimistic Yeltsin's decree will ultimately be translated into federal funds for the cash-strapped museum.

"When there is a Presidential decree, it is always easier to get money out of the Government," he said.

Workers at the Baltisky Zavod were also optimistic last June 13.

Three days before the first round of the presidential election -- with a military band playing -- Yeltsin made a campaign stop at the Baltisky Zavod to meet the crew of the "Peter the Great" nuclear battleship. Afterward, speaking to the factory's workers, Yeltsin promised 350 billion rubles (then about $70 million) over three years for the completion of an icebreaker, and to pay wage arrears.

One year later, with Yeltsin safely re-elected, that promise has apparently been forgotten by the Kremlin -- but not by the workers at Baltisky Zavod, who have sent a letter to Yeltsin, demanding he keep his word.

The letter, signed by Vyacheslav Firyulin, chairman of Baltisky Zavod's trade union, ticks off a list of complaints including: the Ministry of Transportation's refusal to provide the funds promised for the icebreaker; an overall federal debt to the plant totaling 125 billion rubles, and five months of wage arrears. The letter also states that the factory's administration plans to close down for two months due to a cash shortage, and invites Yeltsin to attend a meeting of the factory's workers June 11 -- almost one year to the day after the President's visit to the plant last year.

Yeltsin has also ordered that 20 billion rubles from the Presidential reserve fund be given to the Hermitage to augment its collection, Viktor Ivanov, the museum's deputy director for finance told the "St. Petersburg Times" this week.

But, promises of federal funding -- that often go unkept -- are nothing new to the Hermitage.

Yeltsin also announced, during last Summer's visit, that he would put the world famous museum under his direct personal patronage. A Presidential decree, issued last June 12, also called for the Federal Government to "provide funding of the Hermitage in full accordance with what was planned for it in the Federal budget," beginning from "the second half of 1996."

The decree also obliged the government to pay the museum's debts for work on a new storage facility, and to provide 10 billion rubles to complete the construction.

For fiscal 1996, the Federal budget allocated 102 billion rubles (then, about $20 million).

Museum deputy director for finance Ivanov refused to say how much of that money the Hermitage actually received. He told our correspondent: "You are a correspondent, you should know the answer yourself. I cannot answer that question by telephone," he said.

Mikhail Piotrovsky, the Hermitage's Director could not be reached for comment Monday, but last October, he told the English-language newspaper The "St. Petersburg Times" that the museum had received only 35 percent of what the government had promised.

"I will tear the money out of the Government with my teeth," Piotrovsky said in remarks reported by the newspaper last October.

(Brian Whitmore is a St. Petersburg-based journalist who routinely contributes to RFE/RL.)