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Russia: Peaceful Protests In St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg, 8 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Tens of thousands of unpaid workers, pensioners, and students yesterday converged on Palace Square in the center of St. Petersburg to take part in a nationwide protest sparked by Russia's economic turmoil.

The police estimated that 30,000 appeared on the square. Yevgeny Makarov, chairman of the Federation of Labor Unions in St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Oblast, claimed the figure was about 80,000.

Makarov said that as many as 250,000 workers throughout the city showed some support for the demonstration -- such as meeting at their place of work -- even if they did not make it to Palace Square.

Our correspondent reports that protesters held numerous anti-government and pro-socialist signs. The rally lasted for about 30 minutes, upon which all went home peacefully. Most in the crowd were good-natured and calm. Police said there were no violent incidents.

According to a labor union manifesto, the aim of the protest was to put an end to seven years of what it termed "destructive reform."

Chief among the unions' demands were the resignation of President Boris Yeltsin, followed by the immediate payment of back salaries, pensions, and student stipends, and immediate elections for a new president and State Duma.

Valentina Gorastayeva, chairwoman of the labor union at the Almaz shipyards, was less demanding. She told RFE/RL that "all we want is for the law to be observed and that workers will be paid on time for the work that they do."

She said "privatization at first brought some improvement for Almaz, but in the end things have worsened, especially because the government owes (the shipyards) 42 million rubles for ship orders over the past two years."

Gorastayeva added that the shipyard's 1,000 workers, whose average monthly salary is 1,500 rubles, have not been paid since July.

Galina Zakharova, a worker at Sovyetskaya Zvezda, a textile factory, told RFE/RL that there the monthly salary is 500 rubles (about $34). She said it was "a miracle" that employees "are able to survive." She said they "cannot even afford to buy fruit or new clothes" and survive only because they grow food on summer garden plots.

But Zakharova called the Russian people "optimists," and said they "will survive despite the current difficulties."