War over wages reaches impasse;Briefing;International

19th March 1999 at 00:00

A series of protests has had only partial success in getting teachers paid on time, reports Simon Pirani

The Russian teachers' campaign to get wages paid on time has become a war of attrition involving local authorities who misspend cash from Moscow and raise few resources of their own.

After a wave of protests culminating in a three-day national teachers' strike in January, some of Russia's 89 regional administrations agreed to clear wage debts. Others will take more persuading.

In Smolensk, western Russia, regional administration chiefs met union leaders and agreed to clear all arrears - "but", said Smolensk education union president Varvara Filinova, "teachers' pay is still, on average, more than two months behind". The problem is that wages include three elements - from federal, regional and local budgets - and local authorities with massive budget deficits contribute nothing.

In Vologda, a region north of Moscow, an average of three months' back pay owed to teachers was paid after a three-week all-out strike and a five-hour blockade of the St Petersburg-Moscow railway. A union delegation met deputy prime minister Valentina Matvienko and threatened further action; she authorised a special 40 million-rouble payment.

An earlier 25 million-rouble payment made by central government in December was used by regional governor Vyacheslav Pozgalev to pay staff employed directly by the region in administration, technical colleges and kindergartens. Primary and secondary teachers, who are on the payroll of lower-level local authorities, missed out.

Vologda's education union president, Oleg Dimoni, said: "The worst debts are in rural areas, where local authorities did not pay some teachers for all of 1997 and much of 1998. There is simply nobody for them to collect taxes from." In large towns - especially the successful steel town of Cherepovets - there are fewer problems, he added.

While action at regional level improved the lot of Vologda's rural teachers, in most of Russia it remains unbearable. For example, teachers in remote Sinegorye village in the Far East, a former prison colony more than 5,000 miles from Moscow, are surviving on handouts of food from local traders. They have been on strike for six weeks against mayor Vladislav Treshenka, who declared that no timetable would be drawn up for paying back wages.

Education union president Vladimir Yakovlev says most local authorities are so poor that Russia's local self-government law, which gives the lowest-level authorities wide-ranging powers to raise and spend finance, must be amended or scrapped. The law, adopted in 1991 amid democratising and decentralising euphoria, has led central and regional governments "in practice to abandon responsibility for the state's guarantee of education as a citizen's right", Mr Yakovlev said in an open letter to President Boris Yeltsin last month.

Many regional authorities are secretly hoping the crisis in education may be eased by another legacy of post-Soviet reform: the plunge in the birthrate in 1991-94. This has meant a drastic fall in numbers of new pupils - and talk of large-scale school closures and redundancies.

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