Russians Take to Streets to Sway Future of Reform Drive

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

STOICALLY holding a handmade sign that urged people "to move to a free market via reforms," Tatyana Sokolova says her faith in the Russian government's economic program remains firm even though she has been hard-hit by price increases.

Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, the man in charge of implementing reforms, "is talking economic sense, but he needs time," the silver-haired Ms. Sokolova, an English translator, said as thousands gathered outside the Russian parliament for a pro-government rally yesterday.

The demonstration was one of several in Moscow over the weekend, as both supporters and opponents of the government took to the streets in an attempt to influence the course of events. Pro-government forces are pushing for faster-paced reform. The opposition wants to curtail government policies, if not reverse them altogether.

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The protests were the first large-scale rallies since the government liberalized prices on Jan 2. The government of late has been taking a beating, as opponents of radical reforms have stepped up their political activity, playing on rising discontent over high prices. A roughly equal number of demonstrators turned out for a pro-government rally and for one scheduled nearby to oppose reforms.

A crowd of about 15,000 people, some waving the Russian red, white, and blue flag and others carrying portraits of President Boris Yeltsin, called for the strengthening of radical reforms. Organizers and rally-goers said the meeting was aimed at countering the impression antigovernment agitators were gaining momentum in the struggle to determine Russia's economic destiny.

"Today's meeting is really for propaganda purposes. It's to show the rest of Russia, and the world, that there are many people who support the reforms," said Viktoria Nitina, a government official from Zelenograd, a Moscow suburb.

Over at Manezh Square, opposite the Kremlin, a crowd of about 7,000 gathered under red banners to voice anger over the plight of the "working class." Many harshly criticized the government, saying it had implemented policies without properly taking into account how they would affect the population.

"They think they can do anything because they regard the people as lumpen," Igor Kudryatsev, an electrician, said of the government.

Though perhaps small in number, the forces seeking to curtail reforms pose a great danger to future stability in the eyes of some in the pro-government camp. Vesti, the evening news program on the Russian government's television channel, devoted a considerable portion of its broadcast late Saturday to commentaries on the threat of a totalitarian renaissance. It warned the failure of reforms would bring a fascist dictatorship to Russia, reinforcing its message with file footage of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler

and former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

While the commentaries may have exaggerated the situation, some extremist, ultra-nationalist groups, most notably Pamyat, have assumed a higher profile in recent weeks. At a so-called "Congress of Civil and Patriotic Forces" on Saturday, Pamyat members clad in black shirts repeatedly disrupted the proceedings. Pamyat leader Dmitry Vasiliev later told the gathering that Russia's problems were caused by Zionism, which "breaks the country into parties to prevent the Russian people from uniting," the Interfa x news agency reported.

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