Soviet shoppers out to beat price rise Panicky Muscovites wait hours for bread

March 31, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Long bread lines appeared in Moscow and other Soviet cities yesterday as panicky shoppers tried to stock up ahead of steep price rises set for Tuesday, including a tripling of the price of a loaf.

At one of the capital's biggest bakeries, on Kalinin Prospect, the line had doubled, then tripled back on itself by midafternoon. The wait of about two hours was longer than during the bread shortage of last September, even though officials said they were delivering more than the usual number of loaves to the stores.

At some neighborhood bakeries, people in line bought the loaves directly from delivery trucks, refusing to wait for them to be unloaded and carried inside.

At Children's World, the mammoth children's department store next to KGB headquarters in central Moscow, several thousand people were waiting outside at opening time. Children's clothing, long heavily subsidized, will become three to five times more costly Tuesday.

The huge queues were a visible emblem of the country's accelerating economic and political crisis. They demonstrated that many Soviet citizens, already struggling to make ends meet, fear that despite financial compensation payments, the price increases will prove a crushing blow.

The Kremlin, fearing that the price increases could set off a wave of protest, has imposed a ban on demonstrations in the capital until April 15. President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Prime Minister Valentin S. Pavlov have agreed to meet with representatives of striking coal miners Tuesday, dropping their previous demand that the miners go back to work before high-level talks begin.

Yesterday, metallurgy workers in the Ukraine issued their own economic demands and threatened to join the miners' monthlong strike, which already has closed many metallurgy plants. The government had been trying to get the idled metalworkers to pressure miners into returning to work, but the tactic apparently backfired.

Desperate officials in the Soviet Far East talked miners into returning to work by offering them vodka -- three bottles for every eight workers, the government newspaper Izvestia reported.

But miners from the big Kuzbas coal fields in Siberia sent a telegram to the Russian Congress of People's Deputies protesting Communists' vote Friday to block creation of a new, directly elected presidency. Such a post, proposed by Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin, was approved by 70 percent of those voting in a referendum March 17.

In a stormy day at the Russian congress yesterday, Mr. Yeltsin's critics and defenders tussled for microphones, drowned one another's speeches in sarcastic applause and exchanged a long list of accusations. So many deputies wanted to join the debate that it was extended into an unusual Sunday session today.

Mr. Yeltsin's political opponents accused him of using demagogy to create a personal dictatorship. But they offered no real alternative to the Russian leader's plan for a swift privatization of the economy and de-ideologization of the economy, government, police and military.

The long-awaited speech of Vladimir B. Isakov, a one-time Yeltsin ally who has become a bitter enemy, proved largely a flop.

Mr. Isakov, a lawyer from Mr. Yeltsin's home base of Sverdlovsk, is a former democratic activist who has become disillusioned with the Russian leader. Last month he was one of six members of the parliament's presidium -- mostly conservative Communists to make a much-publicized attack on Mr. Yeltsin.

As a result, he was selected by Mr. Yeltsin's opponents to make the major speech pointing out the Russian leader's faults. Apparently, Communist tacticians believed that Mr. Isakov, as an ex-Communist previously considered a radical, would have more credibility than a party official.

But before Mr. Isakov took the floor, one of his Sverdlovsk colleagues told the deputies that 75 percent of his constituents had voted March 17 to recall him because of what they saw as his betrayal of Mr. Yeltsin. There is no law governing recall, however, and Mr. Isakov has declined to step down.

Once Mr. Isakov began speaking, he surprised his audience before he reached the topic of Mr. Yeltsin by offering the opinion that President Gorbachev should step down.

"I would vote without hesitation to entrust him with any diplomaticpost," he said, drawing somewhat befuddled applause from supporters of Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Gorbachev's chief rival.

Mr. Isakov seemed to share most of Mr. Yeltsin's program, limiting his criticism to the Russian leader's personality and his desire for "absolutely unlimited presidential power."

"On the wave of democracy, there came to power people who neither morally nor practically are ready for it," he said. "Having plenty of experience in organizing rallies, strikes and hunger strikes, they don't have experience in managing normal life."

While the charge could at least theoretically fit some newly elected democrats, it was inappropriate for Mr. Yeltsin, who was Communist Party boss -- in effect, governor -- of the Sverdlovsk region for a decade before coming to Moscow.

Mr. Yeltsin's allies were strongly encouraged by Mr. Isakov's performance, which had been viewed as the prelude to a possible vote of no confidence in the Russian leader.

"It shows the ideological and political bankruptcy of the enemies of Yeltsin," said the Rev. Gleb P. Yakunin, a Russian Orthodox priest and former political prisoner.

"The Communists called this congress to try to unseat Yeltsin," he said. "And I think they've suffered total defeat."

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