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Older Pensioners Line Up for Yeltsin-Mandated Windfall

Russia: Campaigning president multiplies pre-1992 ruble savings by 1,000. Elderly recipients fear Communists.

June 11, 1996|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — With an air of modest expectancy, three white-haired pensioners hovered by a flower-laden table at their Moscow savings bank, waiting for President Boris N. Yeltsin's latest preelection miracle to begin.

A presidential decree that took effect Monday--six days before Yeltsin fights Communist Gennady A. Zyuganov at the polls for another term in Russia's presidency--multiplied by 1,000 the savings of all Russians older than 80.

For Yuri, an engineer and scientific research director until he retired 25 years ago, the windfall was the latest topsy-turvy change in his fortunes.

Like millions of others, he saw his savings vanish in 1992, after Yeltsin's first attempts to bring capitalism to Russia unleashed inflation that topped 2,500% in the first year. Now, with a few strokes of the pen and a quick display of his documents, at least some of his money was coming back.

"I thought my savings were dead and buried," chuckled the retiree, who did not want to give his last name. "It's great that Yeltsin has come out of the shadow of his bad advisors at last and is showing his own true worth."

Popular wisdom has it that pensioners, impoverished by Yeltsin's post-Soviet reforms, will help defeat him with a massive nostalgia vote for Zyuganov and what they remember as the good life of late communism.

But those waiting for their compensation in savings banks across Moscow had no time for self-pity and less for neo-Communists. Their pensions of $30 to $50 a month are enough, they insisted. The compensation money is welcome but is not the basis for their voting decisions.

They are old enough to remember a Soviet past, and it still frightens them.

Despite the president's flaws, the pensioners said, they will vote for Yeltsin. Only one or two women, asked how they would vote, muttered "that's my secret" and slipped away.

"We don't mind about the money we lost. We're not Americans," said former film cameraman Mikhail Z. Druyan, 87. "The point is that it's thanks to Yeltsin that we got rid of the old system. And what was the old system? Millions dying under Stalin, kulaks [peasants condemned for land ownership], camps, repressions."

"I remember the Revolution very well indeed. I remember the hunger, the terrible hunger, and the civil war. They were dreadful years," Yuri, the engineer, added somberly. His wife patted his hand.

*

"Yeltsin's made a lot of mistakes, but he's proved himself as a politician. He's better than what went before. What was really unspeakable here was the whole Soviet regime," said Andrei, an 84-year-old living in a seedy district. He used to be a driver and now does metalwork to boost his pension.

"I used to be a propagandist, and you should have seen the meetings I went to. In the auditorium, people used to be asked such questions that if they answered the least bit wrong, they were . . ."--he drew a finger dramatically across his throat. "So I'll vote for Yeltsin."

All of them know that Yeltsin's compensation is short-changing them. If savings had been indexed to inflation, every 100 rubles of pre-1992 money would now be equivalent to 30 million rubles ($6,000). Instead, pensioners will get 100,000 rubles, or $20, for a deposit of 100 old rubles.

Yeltsin's gesture is also relatively small-scale, taking in only Russia's 1 million oldest voters. If it had included Russia's younger pensioners, it would have meant payouts to about 37 million people.

The decree was just the latest of dozens of vote-catching, if ruinously expensive, sweeteners that the president has been tossing to the crowds in hopes of reversing Zyuganov's early lead in opinion polls.

But if the latest polls are to be believed, Yeltsin has now pulled level with, or even slightly ahead of, his Communist challenger.

Yeltsin's spending spree provoked his government to demand 5 trillion rubles ($1 billion) from a reluctant Russian Central Bank last week to pay the bills; the Central Bank grudgingly handed over the cash, but bank chief Sergei Dubinin is threatening to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Andrei I. Kazmin, president of Sberbank, Russia's network of 35,000 state savings banks, said it is impossible to tell yet what Yeltsin's largess to the over-80s might cost or even how many claimants might come forward.

A list of account-holders dusted off from Soviet central planning days gave no indication of how many are still alive now, he said at a news conference. But no more than 4.5 trillion rubles (slightly less than $1 billion) will be tacked onto the state budget.

*

As bankers and government officials bickered over the bill, the pensioners were left wondering what to do with their savings, which might once have been enough to buy a car or a country home but are now worth only a few months' pension.

"That's the hardest question of all. We don't have that long left to spend it," Druyan said.

"It will probably just slip through my fingers, but I don't mind. For others, who get a smaller pension, it will seem like more, and there are people for whom it will be a godsend, because it will help them pay for a decent funeral."

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