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World - Europe

Russians start anti-Yeltsin protests

protest
Protesters demonstrate against the economic crisis in Russia  

Millions expected to protest across Russian Federation

October 7, 1998
Web posted at: 9:36 a.m. EDT (1336 GMT)

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (CNN) -- Thousands of Russians staged protests in this Pacific port on Wednesday against unpaid wages and President Boris Yeltsin's seven-year rule at the start of a day of nationwide strikes, rallies and marches.

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Russians were expected to take part in marches and other demonstrations across the country organized by trade unions, the Communist Party and other Yeltsin critics.

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Russian TV coverage of the anti-Yeltsin protests
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Organizers expect it to be the largest protest of the post-Soviet era.

"Yeltsin -- quit" and "Give us our wages now" read the banners of protesters assembled before the local government headquarters in Vladivostok, seven time zones east of Moscow and home to Russia's once proud and now crumbling Pacific Fleet.

"Moscow is far away -- what can they understand of our problems," said one middle-aged woman, surrounded by a sea of red flags and portraits of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

But Vladivostok's problems -- plunging living standards, unpaid wages, soaring prices and job losses -- sound only too familiar to tens of millions across the vast Russian Federation. Many of them were expected later on Wednesday to take to the streets with similar complaints and demands.

Russia's latest economic crisis has hammered the ruble, shut down banks, driven up prices and thrown countless people out of work.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov predicted as many as 40 million of Russia's 148 million people could take part in Wednesday's protests, but others say it will be closer to the nearly 2 million people who participated in a similar protest in March 1997.

Primakov asks for calm in television address

On the eve of the protests, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov made a nationally televised appeal to Russians to remain calm, both during the demonstrations and for the duration of the economic crisis.

Primakov promised there would be no food shortages this winter and said the government would start paying overdue wages and pensions.

"The populace will be fully provided with vegetables, fruit and potatoes," Primakov said. "I appeal to everyone not to rock our common boat in today's too-turbulent sea."

But the protesters are not demanding Primakov's resignation. Unlike Yeltsin, the former spymaster and foreign minister still enjoys strong public approval, according to opinion surveys.

His espousal of more measured reforms, including more help for the poor and for industry, has struck a chord among Russians dismayed by the post-communist gulf between haves and have-nots.

Many regional governors like Vladivostok's Yevgeny Nazdratenko, actively courted by Primakov, also approve of Primakov while generally backing Wednesday's planned protests.

Trust of the people, trust of creditors

Primakov faces a tougher task winning the trust of global creditors, still reeling from the previous Cabinet's decision on August 17 to default on some foreign debt repayments, devalue the ruble and unilaterally restructure the GKO short-term domestic debt market.

protestors
Protesters march in Kemerovo, Russia  

On Tuesday Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov, locked in tough talks in Washington with the International Monetary Fund, vowed Russia would pay $3.2 billion in foreign debt owed by the end of 1998.

Zadornov, a liberal, said the new government would present a new tax program to parliament this month and that he expected the ruble to trade at around 20 to 23 to the dollar until the end of this year, well below the current rate of around 15.8.

Before its devaluation one dollar bought about six rubles.

Three time zones to the west of Vladivostok in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, regional governor Alexander Lebed, a likely presidential candidate and fierce critic of Yeltsin, has said he will use the day of action to urge the president to resign.

"Seven years of reforms have been something of an education," he told Reuters on Tuesday. "Eighty percent of the population has been driven into poverty."

Yeltsin has maintained an extremely low profile during Russia's latest economic crisis. He had no public appearances planned for Wednesday.

'Will Yeltsin hear the voice of the people?'

"Will Yeltsin hear the voice of the people?" asked the top headline in Wednesday's Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.

"From the president's Kremlin office...you can see neatly groomed lawns, spruce fir trees...But you don't get a good view of today's Russia," said the paper.

"It will be the largest protest in recent years," said Alexei Surikov, deputy chairman of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions, the main organizer of the protests.

Millions of Russians from coal miners and soldiers to doctors and nuclear scientists have to wait months for their meager wages because of a chronic shortage of state funds and a complex web of debt straddling both public and private sectors.

Unions estimate nearly $5 billion in back wages is owed.

Russia saw sporadic labor strife over the summer, especially from coal miners who briefly blocked the vital trans-Siberian railway, but has remained remarkably calm so far.

One new element in Wednesday's protests may be the pain that has hit Moscow's embryonic white-collar middle class, hundreds of thousands of whom have lost well-paid jobs in recent weeks.

In Yeltsin's home city of Yekaterinburg in the Urals, off-duty police officers are also due to join the marchers to demand overdue wages. "The army and the police are on our side, not on Yeltsin's," hard-line communist Viktor Anpilov said.

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