Unpaid Russians Take To Streets to Shout 'Show Me the Rubles'

Millons of private frustrations spilled over into public anger yesterday as demonstrators turned out in cities across Russia to protest against chronic delays in their wages and pensions.

The "day of action" called by Russia's main trade union federation was the biggest antigovernment protest in the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The number of marchers and strikers fell well short of organizers' predictions, however, and the day passed peacefully.

The protesters' demands were by no means revolutionary. "We don't need to change the faces in the government, we need to change their approach to the people," said one elderly demonstrator in Moscow, Anatoly Bershtein. "People who work in the government solve their own problems, but they don't think about ours."

Around 60 percent of Russian workers are owed back wages that total $9 billion, according to trade-union estimates that the government does not challenge. Pensioners are owed another $3 billion.

Nobody expects the government or private employers to clear this massive debt quickly. "This problem has been building for 18 months, and one day will not solve it," says Irene Stevenson, head of the AFL-CIO office in Moscow.

But the scale of the protests and the heavy news media coverage they attracted have drawn unprecedented attention to a crisis that had until now been bubbling below the surface. "Strikes themselves do not and will not solve problems, but they are a very revealing and objective indicator of the problems' acuteness," Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin acknowledged yesterday.

It was perhaps Russians' sense that the protests would not solve the problem that kept so many of them at home. But the day of action won almost universal moral support. The FNPR trade union federation that organized the protest was joined for the day by smaller and more radical groups. The reformist, pro-free-market Yabloko Party made common cause with the Communist Party and other left-wing opposition parties.

Even government officials joined in. Boris Nemtsov, the newly appointed first deputy prime minister who has a reputation for being an energetic economic reformer, flew to his home city of Nizhny Novgorod to take part in the rally there. But he was shouted down and booed off the stage when he addressed the demonstration.

The demands voiced countrywide were equally diverse. Though FNPR leader Mikhail Shmakov had said that "the unions' official demand is primarily economic in character," that did not stop regional unions from adopting their own slogans. Many, as in the far eastern port of Vladivostok, called for President Boris Yeltsin's resignation, along with the new members of the government he named last week. Others, such as students in the remote Siberian city of Birobidjan, made a less-ambitious demand - free bus passes.

The styles of protest were also varied. In Irkutsk, demonstrators picketed the regional administration headquarters. Elsewhere, workers held meetings in their factories, attended rallies in city squares, or declared token strikes lasting a few hours or a day.

But one simple demand was common to all the protests and all the protesters: Pay us for the work we do, when we do it.

The authorities sought to take some of the steam out of the event with promises that money would be found in the budget to pay some wage arrears: Mr. Chernomyrdin said Wednesday that he had set aside $535 million this month for that purpose.

But similar pledges have been broken countless times before.

"I don't believe workers should be impressed by last-minute decisions or piecemeal decisions," argues Valeri Krabtsov, head of the FNPR's international department. "What we need is a comprehensive social policy."

The fault is not the central government's alone, ministers are quick to point out. Even when Moscow does send money to Russia's 89 administrative regions for pensions or state-enterprise wages, local officials often put the cash in interest-bearing bank accounts for months and skim off the profit.

Private firms, which owe 80 percent of the wage arrears, fall behind either because their customers are not paying them, because they can get away with not paying workers who are too demoralized to fight back, or because they have other priorities.

Tax authorities, for example, impose heavy fines for late payment; employees have no such leverage.

Despite a constitutional court ruling in January that employers must pay wage debts before back taxes, "things are not necessarily being done in that manner," the AFL-CIO's Ms. Stevenson says.

"The government is not responsible for paying all the wages, but it does have to take a lead in enforcing the law."

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