Russians protest over unpaid wages and broken promises

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The Independent Online
Boris Yeltsin and his new cabinet yesterday survived their first perilous hurdle when a day of nationwide strikes and demonstrations passed without the lingering anger of the Russian public boiling over into unrest.

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest about $9bn (pounds 5.6bn) in unpaid wages and pensions and a host of other grievances - from the collapse in the education system, to the power of the unpopular deputy prime minister, Anatoly Chubais.

Although, as expected, the turn-out fell far short of the 20 million predicted by trade union organisers, people marched through the squares and main streets of almost every sizeable city across the nation's 11 time zones. The two biggest cities, Moscow and St Petersburg, held several of their larger demonstrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Some 15,000 gathered in Red Square, in a show of public indignation that embraced an unusually large spectrum of people - students, defence industry worker, textile workers, pensioners, professors, and civil servants. In St Petersburg, still more gathered in Palace Square.

Recent anti-government rallies were generally dominated by party faithful from the Communist and nationalist camps, but yesterday Russia's intelligentsia - former supporters of Mr Yeltsin - were also in evidence. "I know this event is only symbolic, but it is my social duty to be here," said Vladimir Petrov, 59, a sociologist as he stood by the Kremlin, amid scattered chants of "Down with Yeltsin" from the surrounding throng.

Academics, the occupants of plum jobs under Communism, have seen their living standards and their working conditions deteriorate sharply since Russia began its passage to free market economics. "Maybe we are dull, but even we have begun to understand that we must now do something about our situation," said Vladimir Lukin, 49, a professor from Moscow's Institute of Aviation.

He was standing against a backdrop of red and blue banners, interspersed with the occasional portrait of Stalin and the yellow, black and white standard flown by Russia's monarchists and black shirts. "Put the Yeltsin gang on trial", said one banner; "Chubais, you try living on a teacher's pay!" said another.

But although the slogans were pugnacious, even disturbing (anti-semitism is still rife in Russia), the mood was calm in Moscow and, reportedly, elsewhere. This is partly a measure of the uninspiring approach of the opposition parties, especially the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov. Public trust of trade unions is also low, not least because they were seen as an integral part the Soviet machinery of state. Apathy and fatalism also played a role.

But government policy probably helped. The mere threat of nationwide action was enough to galvanise the Kremlin into dispatching money across the country in a last minute fire-dampening effort.

Such was official concern about the protests that the authorities swamped Moscow with some 16,000 police. Gun shops were closed, ostensibly for "technical reasons". As the day approached, the government began to spout "mea culpas" and promises to do better, whilst simultaneously outlining further painful and uncompromising reforms.

At least one on-looker was unconvinced by the appearance of calm. The day of action was a sign that the government was "no longer in control", the president's political nemesis, General Alexander Lebed, told the crowds.

Many Russians would agree. They have seen promises made and broken too often before. It will be a while before they forget Mr Yeltsin's false largesse as he raced round the country garnering votes last summer. Top of the list? Pay and pensions.