Communist car on reform road

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - As politicians squabble over who should be in the driver's seat, ordinary Russians yesterday got a chance to buy a stake in the Zil autoworks, purveyor of armoured limousines to the Kremlin elite, writes Andrew Higgins. .

The sale of Zil, a huge conglomerate with more than 100,000 workers and 17 plants scattered across the former Soviet Union, is the biggest so far in a privatisation drive that Mr Yeltsin hopes will make reform, no matter who wins a tumultuous power struggle, irreversible.

The sale of a company so indelibly linked with Communist Party privilege is being promoted as an important symbol of the government's determination to resist a conservative onslaught by the Congress of People's Deputies.

The power of conservative forces, though, has already been felt in the privatistion of Zil: only 35 per cent of shares are being put on the open market, while workers and managers are to be guaranteed a controlling stake.

At a ceremony in Moscow at the start of a month-long auction for more than a million Zil shares, the deputy head of the State Property Commission insisted that reform was still on course.

'If the conservative Congress is nervous, this means we are moving in the right direction,' said Dmitri Vasilyev.

The Congress accuses Mr Yeltsin and his free-market ministers of selling off Russia's assets to the rich and wants to revise privatisation rules to ensure outside investors can never gain control.

Hand-crafted and enjoying automatic right of way on the road, the Zil limousine was one of the most potent emblems of Communist power. Mr Yeltsin shunned the car for a while, preferring instead a humble Volga, more befitting a 'man of the people'. After a collision in 1990, however, he reverted to the sturdier Zil and now careers around Moscow in a fleet of long, black limousines.

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