Reforms Raise Doubts in Siberia
Uncertainty over jobs and prices in Russian heartland dog leadership of the region's native son, President Boris Yeltsin: first in a series on the impact of reforms outside Moscow.
BEYOND the worn slopes of the southern Ural mountains, the horizon of empty snow-covered Siberian lands is broken only by forests of smokestacks, belching grey smoke into the perpetual twilight. Here, close to the deposits of coal and iron ore and beyond the reach of invaders, Joseph Stalin built the sprawling steel mills and arms plants that were the bedrock of Soviet industrialization.Skip to next paragraph
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The pre-revolutionary settlement of 75,000 hardy souls in Chelyabinsk has grown into a city of 1.2 million, its broad avenues and stolid structures indistinguishable from the other products of assembly-line Soviet urbanism.
This land of tough workers in hard hats is the stronghold of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who hails from the Urals city of Yekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk) to the north. Among the 3.2 million-populated Chelyabinsk region, 3 out of 4 voters cast their ballots for Boris Nikolaievich last June. Yeltsin's support
Mr. Yeltsin won the vote of men like steelworker Viktor Terezov, a 24-year veteran of the giant Chelyabinsk Integrated Iron and Steel Works, or Mechel. But if the election were held today, he says, "I wouldn't vote at all," a view he claims is shared by a majority of his shopmates.
Vladimir Seleznov, Yeltsin's personal representative in the region, is a little more optimistic. Yeltsin will hold the trust of the populace until mid-summer, he says. "In the lines, people still go on only cursing [former Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev, not Yeltsin," he says. "But if Yeltsin doesn't implement his program, he won't last as long as Gorbachev did."
In the first weeks after Yeltsin began freeing most state-controlled prices, the most visible sentiment in this chunk of the Russian heartland is not anger but fear of chaos - and unemployment.
"People are at a loss," Vladimir Golyanov, a thoughtful shop foreman at another metal alloys plant, explains in a late-night talk in his crowded apartment. "Everybody is complaining about the lack of a clear policy. They don't believe in promises."
Across the city, factories are idle because of lack of spare parts and raw materials. Molten steel glows in only two of Mechel's 10 vacuum arc furnaces in its specialty steel division, while a handful of workers stack the stainless steel made for aircraft plants. Mechel director Rashat Maksutov appeared on Russian television last week to appeal for coking coal to be delivered according to contracts, particularly from nearby fields in Kazakhstan.
Mechel, like every plant in this town, depends on defense orders. The city still bears the nickname "Tankograd," earned during World War II when every second Soviet tank rolled from its assembly lines. But as of last year, officials say, not one tank was produced at the giant Chelyabinsk Tractor Works.
"Now people are not angry at Yeltsin," says Mr. Golyanov, who has worked in the same factory for 38 years. "They hope that as Mr. Yeltsin promised, there will finally be order. But they are worried that they don't see this order yet."
What they do see is inflation, the obsessive subject of almost all conversations. Meat which formerly was offered in state stores for 7 rubles a kilo now sells in farmers' markets for 50-70 rubles a kilo. The state-owned stores, which buy from nearby collective farms, set meat prices at 100-150 rubles a kilo. Dairy products are almost impossible to find or are priced out of reach - like butter at 204 rubles a kilo. Sugar has disappeared - even the cafeteria of the regional legislature offers only jam to sweeten the tea. Soaring prices