President Yeltsin criticises handling of pay delays, reports Nick Holdsworth
Chronic delays in paying Russian teachers and persistent underfunding of schools are damaging the country's education system, Vladimir Kinelev, the federal minister of education, acknowledges the problems but insists an end to funding chaos is in sight.
Non-payment of wages sparked a mass walkout by 167,000 teachers across 1,500 higher and vocational schools throughout Russia last month. But intensive meetings with the heads of the finance and economics ministeries and the Russian prime minister, Victor Chernomyrdin, had produced some potential solutions, Mr Kinelev told journalists in Moscow.
"The question of financing education should soon be solved. A mechanism and timetable for paying wages for teaching staff throughout Russia will shortly be announced. I hope that within a few days everyone will know how much they will get and when," he said.
Wage arrears had been exacerbated last year by a pre-election decision to increase salaries across the board by 34 per cent, Mr Kinelev said. The 1996 debt topped 12 trillion roubles (around Pounds 1.5 billion) but had been reduced by almost half since then. Mr Kinelev, the former head of the State Committee on Higher Education until his appointment to a newly merged super-ministry for schools and universities in August last year, also blamed the crisis in schools on the continuing pains of the move from a Communist economy to a free market one.
"Such a radical transition cannot be achieved overnight. The new mechanism where people have both responsibilities and rights cannot be achieved within one or two years, or even 10 years. We are still in a transitional period and the blame for the crisis in education cannot be pinned on any one individual. "
He was confident that measures to ensure funding and the payment of wages, which is complicated in Russia by a division of responsibilities between federal and local agencies for the funding of different types of schools, would address the crisis and education would be able to move forward.
"I don't believe that it will be like this next year, but it is essential that the regions understand that they must spend their budgets responsibly and use funds earmarked for education for that purpose.
"Education is undoubtedly suffering due to this crisis. Not directly, but certainly indirectly." But his upbeat performance failed to convince many of the journalists who have criticised Mr Kinelev for maintaining a low profile since he took office.
The minister's announcement came just days after Victor Chernomyrdin was roundly criticised by President Yeltsin over the wage arrears issue. Speaking at a Kremlin ceremony marking Russian Army Day, in his first fully public appearance since undergoing heart bypass surgery and his subsequent bout of pneumonia, the President upbraided Mr Chernomyrdin for lack of progress on the issue.
Rumours suggesting that the Prime Minister might soon be sacked started circulating in the press soon after. Lengthy delays in paying teachers and funding schooling have dogged Russian education in recent years as the post-Communist government has struggled to collect sufficient taxes to cover their budgets and stories of state factory workers being paid in kind - matchboxes, glassware or even, in one recent case, brassieres, have become legend.
Teachers, especially those in regions remote from Moscow and St Petersburg, have suffered in particular, their paltry wages which average less than Pounds 80 a month, persistently being paid two, three or four months in arrears.