WORLD

KREMLIN-BASHING

BORIS YELTSIN GAINS STRENGTH FROM A DEFIANT PROTEST MARCH AND A VOTE BY RUSSIAN DEPUTIES

MALCOLM GRAY April 8 1991
WORLD

KREMLIN-BASHING

BORIS YELTSIN GAINS STRENGTH FROM A DEFIANT PROTEST MARCH AND A VOTE BY RUSSIAN DEPUTIES

MALCOLM GRAY April 8 1991

KREMLIN-BASHING

WORLD

BORIS YELTSIN GAINS STRENGTH FROM A DEFIANT PROTEST MARCH AND A VOTE BY RUSSIAN DEPUTIES

Hard-line Communists had convened the special session of the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies in hopes of ousting the republic’s leader, Boris Yeltsin. Instead, they helped to make last Thursday a day of triumph for the political maverick. First, angry conservative deputies voted alongside reformers to condemn Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's three-week ban on public demonstrations in Moscow and his decree placing the capital's police under the command of the interior ministry. Then, more than 100,000 Muscovites chanting “Yeltsin! Yeltsin!” and “Gorbachev resign!” marched peacefully through the snowdusted streets, prevented from reaching the redbrick walls of the Kremlin itself only by the presence of 50,000 heavily armed troops as well as police. That defiance, in the face of an ominous show of force, underscored the central government’s growing inability to impose its will on its unruly subjects. Said Sergei Druganov, a member of the Russian parlia-

ment: “Gorbachev is a political corpse, and the fact that he brought troops to Moscow shows he doesn’t know what to do next.”

But Yeltsin had little time to savor those political victories. The next day, he suffered a setback in his drive to become the first directly elected leader in Soviet history when Communist deputies blocked debate on a proposal for a

new elective executive presidency for the vast republic—a post Yeltsin would be favored to win. That legislative defeat illustrated the 60year-old Russian leader’s vulnerability. As the standard-bearer for reformist and democratic forces, he is easily the most popular politician in the Soviet Union. But the onetime Communist Politburo member, who quit the party last year, does not have complete control over the Russian parliament—or its parent body, the 1,063-member congress, which convened last week. Still, his bitter struggle to wrest political power from the Kremlin has clearly eroded the once-unquestioned authority of the central government—as the Moscow demonstrators proved last week.

Gorbachev’s authority was still clearly in evidence in the massed forces of troops and police deployed in the city centre on Thursday. Backed up by water cannon and barricades of army trucks and heavy construction equipment, steel-helmeted soldiers carrying riot shields and rubber truncheons sealed off the

demonstrators’ intended rallying point beneath the Kremlin walls. But their presence simply underlined Gorbachev’s increasing isolation from the people. And from inside the Kremlin last week, the besieged Soviet president had to consider other pressing challenges to his rule. The most notable of those were the economic and political dangers posed by a widening coal miners’ strike affecting as many as one-third of the Soviet Union’s 580 mines.

That labor action broke out in March when miners in the rich coalfields of Ukraine’s Donetsk Basin downed their tools in an attempt to improve their living conditions and wages. Although they earn an average of $745 per month—40 per cent higher than the average Soviet wage—they claim that it is not enough to provide essentials for their families. Their strike has spread to coal-mining regions across the entire Soviet Union—and it has become increasingly political in nature. Under the loose co-ordination of the Independent Union of Miners, a newly formed organization that replaced government-run unions last year, many of the

striking workers have added Gorbachev’s resignation to their list of settlement demands. Last week, about 300,000 of the nation’s 1.2 million miners remained idle, threatening steel mills, auto plants and other coal-powered industries with shutdowns in defiance of a March 26 back-to-work order issued by the Soviet parliament.

The miners also ignored conditions for negotiations that Soviet Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov issued late last month: returning to work and dropping their political demands. “I am not sure that this strike will have any good results,” said Vitali Pechko, a miner in Vor-

kuta, a city of 200,000 people in northern Russia. “But we can no longer put up with this kind of living.” Pechko and the other miners in Vorkuta complain that they have to pay a month’s salary to buy a pair of winter boots, if they can get them, on the black market and as much as $30 a pound for privately grown tomatoes—complaints familiar to many other Soviet workers. Vorkuta also has a severe housing shortage, forcing Pechko and his wife and sister to share living space in a small wooden shed. “I believe that without reshaping the entire political and economic systems, life cannot get any better,” said Pechko. “We want a president elected by the people. We want private property.”

Similar demands were voiced loudly in Moscow last week as the huge crowd surged close to the ranks of police and soldiers blocking the roads to the Kremlin. Many of the protesters acknowledged fears that they would become entangled in violent confrontations with the troops. Some demonstrators added that their sense of foreboding grew earlier in the day when they noticed a pall of greyand-black smoke hanging over the city. But the smoke had no connection with the demonstration. It came from a massive fire that heavily damaged the 10-storey U.S. Embassy building. According to Moscow firefighters, who were swiftly allowed access to the ornate stucco-and-brick building, the fire began in an elevator shaft and spread rapidly to the top floors where diplomats reportedly perform their most classified work. It caused no serious injuries, but about 200 embassy employees had to evacuate the building.

About IV2 km away, thousands of Soviet citizens listened to proreform speakers and joined in the calls for Gorbachev’s resignation. Among them was Galina Federova, a 37-year-old librarian. “Gorbachev’s place in history is secure; he gave us a taste of freedom,” said Federova. “But he has gone as far as he can go and he should step I aside now, taking the Communist S party with him.”

On Friday morning, the streets of Moscow returned to normal as Gorbachev fulfilled a pledge to Russian lawmakers and withdrew the troops from the capital. Yeltsin supporters took their legislative setback on an elected presidency in stride, noting that even such hard-liners as Russian Communist party chief Ivan Polozkov acknowledge the giant republic’s need for such a post. And if there was no sign of compromise between Yeltsin and Gorbachev last week, both leaders could at least take comfort from the fact that a dangerously volatile incident in their bitter power struggle had ended without bloodshed.

MALCOLM GRAY in Moscow