New Soviet law permits sale of state enterprises

July 02, 1991|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- With resolute Communists flinching at its advance, capitalism lurched forward yesterday in the Soviet Union.

In a historic vote, the nation's parliament overwhelmingly approved private ownership of industry. At the same time, the country quietly accepted private enterprise's fellow traveler. It became legal, as of yesterday, to be unemployed.

In this latest upheaval of the 70-year-old socialist system, citizens who had been raised on the admonition that those who don't work don't eat were invited to do just the opposite by signing up for unemployment compensation.

Few did.

One of the country's remaining Communists, television anchorman Alexander Krutov, reported the two events unhappily on the evening news.

"Today will go down in history as changing the social order in our country," he said. "We already have millionaires -- a millionaires club has even been formed -- and today, July 1, the agencies dealing with employment began registering the unemployed."

The law authorizing private ownership was passed 303-14 by the Supreme Soviet, the nation's parliament, and will take effect almost immediately.

The government, which has proposed putting two-thirds of the country's industry into private hands within five years, can now begin in earnest to dismantle the state-run economy.

Conservatives did manage to assure that the state will hold on to about half of the companies in the defense and energy industries.

There are sweeping plans to create committees to set the terms and price for the sale of each factory, but such sweeping plans are still viewed skeptically by citizens in a country that can barely manage to sweep its streets.

And so, in an unemployment office in a residential neighborhood of northwestern Moscow, in a country where waiting in line has become the national pastime, hardly anyone lined up to take advantage of the new law setting up a safety net for the victims of capitalism.

The office had greeted only 12 applicants by midafternoon.

Olga Korotchenko, director of the branch office, said that though the new program had been mentioned in the newspapers and on television and radio, it had not been thoroughly explained -- not even to her and others in charge of interpreting it.

As one of those called upon to overturn the social order, Mrs. Korotchenko was equipped with a five-page manual explaining the complicated rules.

Manual is perhaps a grandiose word for what she held in her hand yesterday -- a flimsy cardboard cover holding five crinkly carbons of the


Mrs. Korotchenko patiently and pleasantly tried her best to explain the ins and outs of her blurred carbon copy:

You have to apply within 14 days of losing your job. You have to be actively looking for work, as evidenced by going out on two job interviews arranged by the office. You have to have worked at least nine months last year. You have to have lost your job after Feb. 1.

And, most of all, you have to adopt a whole new way of thinking about things in a country where, until the last few years, you could get two years in prison for not having a job, the result of Josef V. Stalin's declaring in October 1930 that unemployment no longer existed.

"There are so many restrictions that very few will receive [benefits] this year," Mrs. Korotchenko said apologetically.

Only two of the 12 people who visited her office yesterday might eventually qualify for compensation, she said.

Tatyana Manyeva, who was an economist for 10 years before becoming a waitress so that she could spend more time with her daughter, was told that she didn't qualify because she was three days late in notifying the state that she had been fired from her job.

Mrs. Manyeva, who has survived previous unemployment with the help of friends, thought she could rewrite history. The passport-sized work record she carried clearly bore an inconvenient date, but she said she could get three days taken off it because she had been sick and couldn't come in to register.

But old ways die hard. When 24-year-old Konstantin Kusov arrived with a story that put him under the sway of too many rules to count, the bureaucrats prevailed.

Mr. Kusov, though an aviation engineer, had been drafted by the army and set to work as a common laborer on a military construction crew in Siberia. He also came from another district, though he lives closest to this office.

Was he engineer or laborer? Did he have any right to apply to this office? How were soldiers considered? Had he been out of work too long or not long enough?

The rules were unclear, but the solution was not.

"The list is closed for today," Mr. Kusov was told.

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