Russia's national protest fizzles Millions stay away, despite big buildup

October 08, 1998|By Kathy Lally and Will Englund | Kathy Lally and Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Workers filed in and out of the Mikoms Meat Factory yesterday, trying to find out if they would ever get the five months of pay still owed them when the gates permanently slammed shut, throwing 2,300 people out of work.

Across the street, Ronald McDonald sat fixed to a bench, one leg jauntily crossed over the other, a bemused smile on his statue face. A placard next to him advertised a Flubber Happy Meal.

The juxtapositions of dashed hopes and tantalizing promises are ubiquitous here, and the number of disgruntled and dispossessed citizens runs to the millions.

Yet only about 30,000 protesters turned out in Moscow for a widely publicized anti-government demonstration yesterday -- fewer than would fill the average American stadium for a baseball game.

"It wouldn't do any good," said Andrei Petrov, a 38-year-old former Mikoms worker, explaining why he ignored the demonstration. "We live in Russia."

For weeks, Communist groups and trade unions have been calling for a nationwide strike yesterday to protest unpaid wages and the government's handling of the economy.

The Russian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, which claims 50 million members, predicted that 28 million workers across the country would stop work and demonstrate. At least 150,000 were expected to march in Moscow alone, demanding President Boris N. Yeltsin's resignation and new elections.

Such estimates sounded reasonable. Russians have been assaulted with more and more bad news over the last eight weeks. The ruble has fallen disastrously, from 6.2 to 15 to the dollar. Untold thousands of people have lost their jobs. Many others have taken deep pay cuts as prices rise daily.

And the new government of Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov has yet to present a plan to pull the nation out of crisis.

The demonstration brought out mostly familiar faces. The elderly yearning for the security of the past walked slowly behind the red flag with its hammer and sickle. Knots of extremists marched behind fascist banners. One group carried a Che Guevara flag. Perhaps only several hundred thousand protested across all of Russia.

In the center of Moscow, thousands of demonstrators streamed across the Kremlin Bridge under Soviet flags and union banners, heading toward St. Basil's Cathedral. From their vantage point the fanciful onion-domed church was partly obscured by a Renault billboard proclaiming, "Economy you can only dream about."

The theme was uncomplicated: Yeltsin must go. But even here there wasn't much real anger, and hardly anyone had an unkind word to say about the new prime minister.

"When they nominated Primakov I started to sleep well," said Yelena Kuznetsova, of the Electrical Workers Union.

One group, from the Steel Research Institute, joined the protests after staging their own demonstration at the headquarters of Inkombank.

The institute produces security devices for the military, and workers are unhappy because they never got paid for a contract they completed to provide equipment to Iran. Iran sent $57,000 through the state weapons monopoly, but that money, which was supposed to go for salaries, was deposited in Inkombank in August and hasn't been seen since.

"And this is just one little drop in the sea of problems," said Tatyana Shvedova, the union leader at the institute.

Sergei Alekseyev, on the other hand, was mocking demonstrators yesterday because he thought they were too timid. "It will make a bad impression because it will have no effect at all," he said. "What's needed is a great revolutionary strike."

Alekseyev, 23, was waving a large red banner with a portrait on it of Pol Pot, the late leader of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge who tyrannized Cambodia in the 1970s.

"He wasn't burdened by humane ideas, and he eliminated the worst part of his nation," Alekseyev said. "You cannot build a just society without dictatorship."

One aspect of the demonstrations was new. More than half of the nation's governors led protests in their home cities. If some were trying to control their people, others were defying the government in what they see as an indifferent Moscow.

Alexander I. Lebed, a Yeltsin critic who has presidential ambitions, joined the march in Krasnoyarsk, where he is governor. "Today Yeltsin is alone," Lebed was quoted as saying. People are pushed to the extreme."

Back at the Moscow meat factory, the unemployed workers remained unconvinced that anything would change.

"It's only a show," said Andrei Loznetsov, 41, who had been a cook in the Mikoms cafeteria. "You can march with flags, you can demonstrate. But nothing will happen. Our government lives in its own world."

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