General strike in Russia Awkward moment: As millions strike, Yeltsin counts on loyalty of soldiers.

March 29, 1997

AS HUNDREDS OF thousands of Russians heeded the communists' call for a general strike Thursday, President Boris N. Yeltsin did not take any chances.

His government rushed to pay officers and soldiers long-overdue salaries to ensure the loyalty of troops that were put on alert in 650 cities. The payments were preceded by a near-revolt by a regional paratroop unit over unpaid wages, an incident that showed, according to Moscow's most respected newspaper, that "Russia could witness a repetition of the Albanian revolt."

Russia had its pyramid investment scheme scandal years ago. Those defrauded of their funds were angry, but not violent. Thursday's general strike -- under the banner "For work, justice and social guarantees" -- was organized to protest the Yeltsin government's failure to pay some $9 billion in unpaid wages and pensions that are owed to millions of Russians.

This situation is encouraging all kinds of conspiracy theories. "One gets the impression that it has been decided that a third of the population of the country are to be killed off," said Alexander Lebed, one of President Yeltsin's most outspoken opponents.

Throughout history, Russians have shown docility in situations where many other nationalities would resort to violence. This seems to have happened again. Because the strike failed to paralyze the nation, the Yeltsin government may have bought itself some more time and breathing room. But not much more.

Mr. Yeltsin, who recently reorganized his cabinet, has to begin to deliver. Unless desperate people finally receive overdue wages and pensions, they are driven to desperate acts. Politically, too, Mr. Yeltsin's time is running out, unless he can quickly demonstrate that the cabinet realignment truly is working. This will be difficult: even the "downsized" cabinet still consists of 68 members.

The inclusion of many leading liberals in the cabinet has been welcomed in the West as a sign that the reform process has resumed. Inside Russia, though, many blame those same reformers for the current economic hardships. Mr. Yeltsin will need all of his skills to sell his program to a hostile and skeptical population.

Pub Date: 3/29/97

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