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Russia: Teachers Calling For Better Pay

Moscow, 27 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Teachers from 87 of Russia's 89 regions are leaving their classrooms for the streets today, or taking other actions, to protest against low wages and continuing delays in receiving their pay.

The teachers say they are trying to attract the Kremlin's attention, fearing they will be forgotten in an ambitious federal government education reform plan.

They are calling for a 50 percent raise in salaries that they say now often leave them with incomes below subsistence level.

Galina Merkulova, a leader in the Educational and Science Workers' Union that is a principal organizer of today's work action, told our Moscow correspondent that a 20 percent increase in salaries last January brought the average teacher's monthly pay to the equivalent of about $25.

"That is only 48 percent of today's official subsistence level. It's difficult to even imagine how teachers survive. Essentially it is thanks to their gardens, but you know what you get from a garden: vegetables."

Despite reports of growth in federal revenues, the government has not fully repaid salary arrears owed to teachers since the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, which ended in late 1999. Merkulova says that many federal budget transfers to local teachers are still overdue.

In some regions, such as Altay and the far-eastern Primorye, teachers already have gone on strike, suspending classes for a few hours or the whole day today. In other places, such as Moscow -- where the city supplements federal teachers' salaries -- they have scheduled a meeting in front of a government building for after-school hours.

In Russia today, teachers and professors often subsist through stratagems such as working in market stalls on weekends. Parents say teachers also often accept bribes in exchange for handing out better grades.

While underfinancing is one issue, so is diversion of state funds. Often federal transfers for salary payments disappear on the way to the regions. Sometimes they are diverted by local authorities. Our correspondent in Siberia's Tuva Region, south of Moscow, reports that local authorities there used school funds to finance offices for parliamentary deputies.

Vladimir Yakovlev, head of the Educational and Science Workers Union, told private NTV television that the protests are meant to attract the attention of President Vladimir Putin and the government as they institute a sweeping reform of Russian education.

News reports in Moscow say many teachers fear that the proposed reform, which has yet to be reviewed by parliament, could undermine their situation further by decreasing central responsibility for education. One part of the plan would involve parents and local governments in the financing of schools and universities.

But the government says that private financing of school education is, in fact, already a reality. Parents pay bribes, purchase private lessons, and subsidize school equipment now. Thus, the argument goes, the proposed changes would merely bring this underground financing into the open, and facilitate a fair distribution.

(RFE/RL's Russian Service Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.)