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Russia: Nationwide Protests Expected

By Floriana Fossato/John Varoli

Prague, 6 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Russians are preparing for a day of nationwide protests tomorrow, which opposition leaders will use to step up calls for the resignation of President Boris Yeltsin.

The protests are being led by the Communist Party and by labor unions, with varying degrees of coordination in different parts of the country. In some places, demonstrators are expected to hold marches and rallies. In other places, there will be work stoppages.

The focus of protests is also likely to vary -- with communists demanding Yeltsin step down while many workers emphasize payment of back wages. But collectively, the protests will widely be seen as a comment on Yeltsin's leadership and a reflection of popular anger over the fallout from the country's ongoing financial crisis.

The government has announced security measures ahead of the protests. Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin said yesterday that his ministry "does not rule out the possibility of negative developments." Ministry officials have said that 11,000 policemen and 4,000 Interior Ministry troops will be deployed in Moscow alone to prevent disorder.

Justice Minister Pavel Krasheninnikov is quoted today warning that opposition figures who advocate unrest may face prosecution. The business daily Kommersant quotes Krasheninnikov as saying that some opposition figures, who he said made calls at demonstrations over the weekend for the government's ouster by force, violated the law.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov says protesters should support two main demands: Yeltsin's resignation and the creation of a coalition government. He has also said that if the Kremlin tomorrow fails to listen to citizens' demands, including the call for Yeltsin's resignation, it will face what he termed "the toughest protest actions" in the near future.

Communist leaders aren't the only ones using the protests to press for Yeltsin to step down. Aleksandr Lebed, a former chief of the Security Council and now governor of the Krasnoyarsk region, said today that "any government must serve the people, and if it fails to deliver it must go." Lebed, a past and likely a future presidential candidate, told Interfax that Yeltsin's resignation is "inevitable."

However, many Russian political observers say it is unlikely that Yeltsin, even in his currently weakened position, would resign or call for early presidential and parliamentary elections. They say that Yeltsin's move to meet opposition demands by naming Yevgeny Primakov as prime minister has lessened public anger. Primakov's new government has made fresh promises to pay back wages and to address public concerns over the fairness of privatization efforts.

Nonetheless, anger persists. In comments to RFE/RL, the head of the Leningrad Metal Factory's trade union, Valeri Akhtyukin, said "dishonest and cold-hearted people have been accumulating wealth, which is in fact worker's salaries, and spending it on a luxurious life." He said workers cannot let the well-connected "beat and rob us." He said workers need to make their voices heard so that the powerful understand that workers are unhappy.

But Akhtyukin and other labor leaders in St. Petersburg told our correspondent that they are making efforts to avoid disorder during tomorrow's protests. The Communist Party's national leadership has also called for those who turn out to remain peaceful.

Estimates vary on the number of Russians expected to take part. Zyuganov said today that up to 40 million people will be involved. Labor leaders have said they also expect that several million will participate.

Opposition and labor union estimates ahead of past nationwide demonstrations have proven to be greatly inflated. If they are closer this time, it will be an indicator that average Russians are feeling -- and voicing -- an increasing sense of frustration over the hardships they face.

(Floriana Fossato reported from Moscow, John Varoli from St. Petersburg)