Yeltsin tries to check tide of discontent as strikes loom

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The Independent Online
Boris Yeltsin and his new government yesterday mounted an eleventh-hour attempt to soothe a discontented population in the hope of dampening down the impact of a wave of strikes and demonstrations which are plan-ned across Russia today.

The triad which now heads the reshuffled government - the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and his youthful new deputies, Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov - chose the eve of the one-day national strike to reassure the public that their myriad economic problems will be tackled.

In particular, Mr Chernomyrdin pledged that a start would be made in settling billions of dollars worth of wages and pensions arrears - one of the country's deepest sources of anger and division, and the driving force behind today's industrial action.

Mr Yeltsin, a veteran political stuntman, weighed in with a nationwide radio address defending his performance at last week's Helsinki summit, which has been criticised as a sell-out by his Communist and nationalist foes. In a separate move, he also announced that he will take personal charge of reforming Russia's armed forces.

And he fired off a blatantly populist decree banning government workers from using foreign cars for official business. Even the Kremlin's fattest cats will be forced to auction off their beloved Mercedes and BMWs and replace them with Russian-produced vehicles, setting the stage for a return to the black Zils and Volgos which swept party apparatchiks around Moscow during the Soviet era.

Mass strikes in Russia tend to produce unwarranted alarm-ist warnings of unrest, but yesterday's theatrical flurry by the leadership suggests that the Kremlin is concerned about today's events. Trade union leaders claim that up to 20 million people will go on strike at almost 30,000 different enterprises, ranging from heavy industrial plants to coal mines. In Moscow alone, where several large protests are planned, the city authorities say 16,000 police will be on the streets, including riot squads.

Yesterday, Mr Chernomyrdin underlined the mood of general unease by issuing an appeal for calm, which he combined with an attempt to assure the world that his new administration is a caring, sharing one, which is deeply concerned about the long-suffering Russian public and its unpaid wages.

"We see this problem, we feel and understand this problem," he said, before urging people not to get "carried away by emotion and provocations". He continued: "You see, there exist forces that want to rock the boat, that want to use this normal action

Certainly, most Russians have good reason for outrage. The country's wage and pension arrears have risen to $8.8bn (pounds 5.5bn); factories across the nation's 11 time zones stand idle and often derelict; millions have seen their savings wiped out by inflation or fraudulent pyramid investment schemes; health and education services have been collapsing steadily since Russia first embarked on reforms in 1992, while other social blights - from disease to corruption and crime - have been multiplying. Today, the government will be hoping that apathy and cold weather will help stifle many of the cries of anguish. In much of Russia, the idea of going on strike is considered pointless as many of the industries are already at a standstill.

But Mr Chernomyrdin and his free-marketeers also have more concrete solutions to Russia's economic crisis. Yesterday, the Prime Minister reeled off a list of planned reforms - including overhauling the tax code, regulating national monopolies, and reforming key areas of the benefits system, notably housing, pensions and utilities.

The proposals depend ultimately on Russia's ability to raise its revenues, notably tax, and to cut its spending. Both measures are scarcely likely to improve the public mood, at least, not in the short term.