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Russia: Protest Marches Converge On Moscow

Moscow, 16 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Workers from several Russian nuclear power plants have been marching toward Moscow since July 3 to protest wage arrears and dangerous working conditions, and have now reached the outskirts of the Russian capital.

Tomorrow, they plan to picket the Russian Government Building (The White House). A separate march that began July 12 organized by Viktor Ampilov's hardline-communist "Working Russia" movement also plans to reach Moscow by Friday, to stage a protest rally on Red Square.

The first march was organized by workers of the Smolensk nuclear power plant in Desnogorsk, about 360 kilometers southwest of Moscow. The marchers - varying between 60 and more than 100 - walked on foot the entire distance, and were joined later by colleagues from the Kalinin, Leningrad, Kola and Novovoronezh nuclear power plants. During the march, reinforcements arrived regularly from each plant, and numbers swell significantly in the last days.

Moscow's Trade Union Federation today issued a statement, saying it supports the marchers and is ready to help them with transport, food and other facilities. The Trade Union Federation says the government owes about 147 billion rubles in back wages to workers in the nuclear energy sector.

The protesters, who have been camping since last night near Moscow's outer ring road, say they are concerned not only with the promised payment of their back wages, but also with dangerous working conditions, due to inadequate funding by federal authorities.

Protester organizers, referring to the 1986 accident at Chornobyl in Ukraine, said they are concerned "another Chornobyl could happen in the future." And, they asserted that Russia "had already come close to it."

Echoing criticism widely leveled in the past few years, protesters also noted that the industry's development has been impaired nationally by a chronic lack of funding for urgent maintenance and safety work. They said that if funds are not provided, thousands of workers in the sector may lose their jobs. According to figures provided by marchers, more than $400 million is needed to make the Smolensk nuclear power plant safe. The situation is reported similar in the majority of Russia's other nuclear facilities.

Russian news agencies recently quoted the chairman of the Smolensk plant's trade union, Vyacheslav Vorobev, as saying Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and one of his First Deputies, Boris Nemtsov, signed protocols this year, promising to come up with funding for repair works at the plant's obsolete reactor. Vorobev was quoted as saying that, although the funding has been authorized, it had not been distributed. Vorobev said this fact had prompted the Smolensk station workers to march on Russia's White House.

Itar-Tass quoted protesters as saying they intend tomorrow to demand a meeting with Nemtsov to discuss the situation. The protesters said their march had nothing in common with partisan politics, and with a separate march expected to converge this week on Moscow. The other march was organized by Ampilov's communist movement "Working Russia," and by another radical opposition movement, the "Officers' Union" of Stanislav Terekhov.

Ampilov and Terekhov's march started last week from two southern Russian cities, Tula (150 kms from Moscow) and Ryazan (300 kms from Moscow), and is expected to arrive in Moscow Friday, and to be concluded by an opposition rally in Red Square. Participants are reported to number far fewer than the 20,000 expected by organizers. Reports in Russian media said combined forces of the protesters reached several hundred people.

Banners carried by the protesters include such requests as the formation of a new government, the removal of First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais, the payment of salaries and support for Russia's Armed Forces.

Russian press reports say communist party activists are participating in the march, although top communist party leaders seemed to distance themselves from it. A top Communist Party leader was quoted today as saying that the march "will continue, but will surely fail to influence the situation in the country."