Russia’s national day of protest, Wednesday, passed peacefully, with protesters in some seventy-eight of Russia’s eighty-nine regions demanding payment of wage and pension arrears and the resignation of President Boris Yeltsin. The turnout was considerably lower than organizers had predicted. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov had said as many as 40 million people would hit the streets. Mikhail Shmakov, head of the Russian Confederation of Independent Trade Unions, had predicted the turnout would be as high as 28 million. The actual numbers were the source of some debate: the Kremlin claimed only 700 thousand took part nationwide, while protest organizers said twelve million had either marched or stopped working (Russian agencies, October 8). An official of Russia’s Justice Ministry told the daily newspaper Vremya the turnout was half the 28 million people predicted by the trade unions (Vremya, October 8). Only thirty thousand of an expected 250 thousand people turned out for protests in St. Petersburg, a city with many insolvent military-industrial enterprises where opposition rallies have often had large turnouts (Ekho Moskvy, October 7). According to the Moscow police, more than fifty thousand marched in the capital. By way of comparison, 300 thousand participated in a March 1991 protest in support of Boris Yeltsin, Russian sovereignty and miners striking at the time against the Soviet government (Segodnya, October 8; Moskovsky komsomolets, October 8).
The question of why the turnout was modest, given Russia’s deep economic crisis, was the subject of speculation. While most Russians dislike President Boris Yeltsin (a recent poll showed his support level at 4 percent), many nonetheless have no nostalgia for the Communist era. Moreover, they are simply sick of politics and suspicious of all the country’s main political players. Perhaps an even more important factor was the fact that Yeltsin’s potential successors–and thus the political forces supporting them–have little interest in seeing him step down immediately. As the daily Segodnya put it, none of the contenders, from Zyuganov to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov to Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed, would want to face elections in the middle of a cold winter or spring, with “continuing nonpayments [of wages and pensions], unwinding inflation, paralyzed food imports, rising prices, regional separatism.”
OLIGARCHS MAY HAVE FALLEN INTO A TRAP.