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Rouble trouble as winter bites

RUSSIA. The death of a hunger-striking teacher has failed to win effective reforms from central government, writes Nick Holdsworth

Teachers' protests, strikes, blockades and hunger strikes are set to intensify in Russia in the coming year as conditions in schools worsen.

Staff in schools in dozens of regions say they won't return after the New Year holidays unless education authorities begin to pay off wage arrears running into millions of roubles.

The death of a hunger-striking teacher in Ulyanovsk, in central Russia last month, has galvanised and unified teachers, public-sector workers and ordinary Russians across the political spectrum.

"In all my 40 years as a close observer of education in Russia I have to say the very worst moment has arrived," said Igor Afanasiev, social problems editor at Uchitelskaya Gazeta. "Russian people are by nature very patient, but once angered they are very bad, something I fear can be not only terrible for Russia but for the rest of the world too."

Alexander Motorin, a 43-year-old survival skills teacher, died from heart failure on the fourth day of a hunger strike involving 450 teachers in the Volga region. His death prompted 10,000 telegrams and letters of condolence from around the world. Many people sent money for Motorin's widowed wife and children and businesses made donations to a special fund.

"Pensioners were coming to the school with 10 rouble notes (25 pence), what little they could afford. The tragedy awoke the collective feeling of solidarity among people," Afanasiev said.

The teacher's death came at the end of a year in which the patience of tens of thousands of poorly paid staff at crumbling schools from Vladivostok in the east to Smolensk in the west finally snapped.

Teachers initially limited their complaints to letter-writing campaigns and petitions to regional governors. They began to take to the streets as Russia's economy faltered and then in mid-August collapsed in a banking crisis which more than halved the value of the rouble overnight, pushing prices for food sky high.

Hopes of a change for the better were dashed when new prime minister Yevgeny Primakov brought Communist economists into the cabinet. This proved the last straw for many. Promising to clamp down on tax evasion, wage arrears and bring decency and order back into public life, the new government soon proved as ineffective as previous administrations. A wave of strikes in Siberia fuelled a bitter war of words between Moscow and the regions.

Moscow said it was the legal responsibility of the regions to sort out the wage arrears. Regional governors argued that Moscow's tax demands and general underfunding left them with no money to pay for basic health, education or other key services.

Motorin's death brought little response from public authorities. A fresh wave of protests during December included a blockade of a railway line in the Vologda region of northern Russia, strikes in Tatarstan, central Russia and the announcement that strikers in Arkhangelsk region, who have not been paid since April, would begin a hunger strike.

Meanwhile, rich Russianscontinued to buy their children a top-class education overseas. The British Council's fledgling Schools Placement Service reported growing demand for help to find places for Russian children at independent schools in Britain.

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