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Russia: Primakov's Grace Period Appears Near End

Moscow, 23 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Immediately after taking office in September, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov said that his government's first priority would be the payment of back wages and pension payments. In many cases, the arrears had not been paid for months, even for years.

It now appears that Primakov, seeking to avoid a social explosion at the peak of Russia's financial crisis, promised what cash-strapped Moscow could not deliver. After more than two months in office, his government, like previous ones, will probably soon have to acknowledge its inability to fulfill the pledge.

Work stoppages over wage arrears are again in the news. Russian media reported last week that over 12,000 teachers in the Far East region of Primore went on strike to demand more than eight months' back wages. In some cities, teachers plan only limited protest actions, but strikers in the northeast part of the region are threatening to stop work indefinitely.

Russian news agencies also report that in recent weeks teachers launched protest actions on unpaid wages in several other areas. They include the Siberian Chita Oblast, the Urals region of Sverdlovsk, the Leningrad region and the Republic of Udmurtia.

Primakov reportedly said at a recent meeting with State Duma women deputies that his government is paying current salaries, but will be unable to pay arrears for pensions and child support before the end of this year. The situation appears to be the same on back wages for state-sector workers and military officers.

Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov said recently that October salaries were being paid on time. But Russian media reports estimate that the previous months' debt owed to state-sector workers reached 14 billion rubles.

The government's financial problems are leading to more than just threats of work stoppages.

Last week (Nov. 17), Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the President of the southern Republic of Kalmykia, said that because of Moscow's failure to provide Kalmykia with promised subsidies, the republic was being forced to consider itself "de facto outside the Russian Federation." He added that Kalmykia would no longer transfer taxes to the federal budget.

The next day, Ilyumzhinov said that Russia was showing signs of what he called "a federation crisis" that could lead to its break-up. Later in the week he back-pedaled, saying he was only trying to draw attention to his region's economic woes.

Ilyumzhinov's remarks nevertheless triggered a furious reaction both in the Kremlin and in parliament. President Boris Yeltsin instructed his Security Council to review whether Ilyumzhinov's statements were consistent with the country's Constitution. Leaders of both houses of the Russian parliament have harshly denounced Ilyumzhinov.

Finance Minister Zadornov responded to Ilyumzhinov's accusations by saying that payments from Moscow had been made on time, but that part of the money was diverted. Suspicion about Ilyumzhinov's use of federal and regional funds has been growing in recent months.

Meanwhile, most of the impoverished population of Kalmykia has not received wages, let alone the wealth Ilyumzhinov promised during his 1993 campaign for the republic's presidency. Critics have also accused him of using illegal means against his political opponents and of having played a role in the murder of a journalist earlier this year. No legal charges against Ilyumzhinov have been brought.

"Nezavisimaya gazeta," a daily controlled by controversial financier Boris Berezovsky, said last week that Primakov cannot ensure stability in Russia. That, along with strike actions and the Kalmykia crisis, is another sign that Primakov's political grace period seems rapidly to be coming to an end.