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Protesters Across Russia Call On Yeltsin to Quit

Economy: More than 600,000 people rally against mismanagement. Moderates join foes of president.

October 08, 1998|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Hundreds of thousands of Russian workers, pensioners and students set aside their differences Wednesday to march, picket and chant together, demanding the resignation of the man they blame for their country's economic ruin: President Boris N. Yeltsin.

"Resign! Resign! Resign!" shouted a crowd of 150,000 arrayed beneath the rainbow-striped domes of St. Basil's Cathedral outside the Kremlin.

Police said 615,000 people took part in rallies nationwide--far short of the 1.5 million marchers that organizers had predicted. But because the protests took place in an atmosphere of crisis, their impact may be far greater than the turnout.

One reason is that the demonstrations attracted not only Communists and hard-core Yeltsin opponents but more moderate political forces--trade unionists, students and people such as Anatoly Tyushov, who hadn't been to a political rally in seven years.

"I couldn't stay home," the 50-year-old scientist said, seemingly embarrassed to be walking shoulder to shoulder with leather-clad students, bearded Cossacks and blue-haired pensioners. "But we have to show how destructive this government's policies are. We have to demonstrate our anger with what is taking place."

Despite repeated promises, Yeltsin's government has fallen months--even years--behind in paying state wages and pensions. The crisis escalated in August, when the government was forced to, in effect, devalue the ruble, sending prices soaring.

But Wednesday's protesters spent less time complaining about wages and prices than focusing their discontent on the leader who has fired two prime ministers and had several showdowns with parliament this year without improving their lot.

Their calls appeared to penetrate the Kremlin walls. Late in the day, Yeltsin--who has been in seclusion through much of the crisis--sent out top aides to say he has no intention of resigning.

"For the sake of [the people], for the sake of preserving calm and stability, for the sake of observing the constitutional rights of citizens, the president of the Russian Federation will continue to work," said Oleg N. Sysuyev, a deputy prime minister.

The rallies were called by trade unions months ago to demand payment of overdue wages. But with anger growing across the political spectrum and living standards deteriorating, Communists and other groups joined the unions' bandwagon for what was billed as a nationwide "day of protest."

The result was a patchwork of flags--blue for the unions, red for the Communists, green and black and yellow for various nationalists--and a cacophony of demands, of which only one rang clear: that the president step down.

"Yeltsin loves power," scientist Tyushov complained. "If only he loved his country as much."

For the most part, the protests proceeded without incident in nearly 500 towns and cities around the country. Trade unions said that 1.4 million people had taken part, more than double the police estimate. But even the Kremlin acknowledged that an exact count was impossible because many people stayed home from work or took part in similar, less visible acts of protest.

Fearing disorder, many schools and businesses shut down for the day, and one major domestic airline canceled all flights. Police patrols were heavy.

But with clear, sunny skies in the major cities, a festival atmosphere prevailed. The Moscow march set off to the chimes of church bells mounted on the back of a pickup truck.

Politically, the rallies differed in several significant ways from previous protests.

For one thing, Yeltsin's fragile health for the first time appeared to be a significant issue for many protesters. One of them was retired bus driver Nikolai Orlov, 71, who wore a sign reading, "It's time to put a sick president out to pasture."

"In Russia, there are many smart, healthy people," he said. "It's shameful that the Russian people can't find anyone better than Yeltsin."

Another difference was the unstable position of the Communist Party, whose position as the leader of opposition forces has weakened in recent weeks.

For one thing, several top Communists have joined the Cabinet, meaning they are in both the government and in the opposition. While Communist flags and marchers clearly outnumbered others at the rallies, union leaders dominated at the microphone.

The situation was similarly muddied in many outlying regions, where governors led protests against the government they ostensibly serve.

In the province of Krasnoyarsk, Gov. Alexander I. Lebed--a Yeltsin opponent and declared presidential candidate--walked in a column of protesters and said "new people" must be found "to set the economy in motion."

The rallies also illustrated how the country's political tectonics have begun to shift because of the economic crisis. In recent days, a broad range of groups--nationalists, some liberals and Communists--have aligned in what has been dubbed a "center-left bloc," with Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov as its leader-apparent.

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