By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — May was a hot month in Lithuania, as striking teachers headed up the largest wage struggles for many decades in the former Soviet republic. An estimated 4000 teachers began walking off the job on May 13 after turning down a wage offer that failed to match inflation.
Also in mid-May, transport workers in the cities of Kaunas and Klaipeda were preparing to go on strike around pay demands. Since declaring its independence from the USSR in 1989, the Baltic country has suffered one of the steepest economic declines in the former eastern bloc.
On May 6 Lithuania's Democratic Labour Party government announced that the wages of education workers would rise by 30%, and those of health employees, students and pensioners by 20%.
The wage offer drew a harsh response from the International Monetary Fund, on which Lithuania depends for emergency credits. According to reports in the Russian press, representatives of the IMF declared that if the pay increases went ahead, credits to Lithuania would be cut off, as would the financing of international projects in the country.
In talks with the Lithuanian government, IMF officials stated that they would accept the payment to state employees of increases averaging 15%, on the condition that the state budget deficit did not exceed limits set by the fund.
The teachers saw things differently. Average salaries for education and health workers in Lithuania are only about 45% of the national average wage, and some teachers are paid as little as US$13 a month. The government's offer — not to speak of the IMF's blackmail — met with an angry rejection.
Demanding that their salaries be raised to the equivalent of US$51 a month, teachers walked out of more than 140 of the country's 1100 schools. After a
week on strike, they agreed to resume work until the end of the month, to allow the government to consider their demands and to prevent students missing final exams.
Inflation in Lithuania this year reached 46% by mid-May, after totalling more than 1200% during 1992. In the course of last year, the real value of the average wage fell by more than 60%. Pensioners and other low-income groups have been forced to choose between buying food and paying the new market-level rents for state-supplied housing.
In all, Lithuanian industrial production plunged by 55% during the first three years after independence was declared, and agricultural output by 39%.
The economic collapse brought about by neo-liberal policies and the rupture of economic links with other former Soviet republics led voters last year to reject the Sajudis movement that had led Lithuania to independence. The Democratic Labour Party, headed by former Communist leaders but now professedly social democratic, scored a surprise victory in parliamentary elections in November.
This triumph was capped in February when DLP candidate Algirdas Brazauskas was elected president on a platform that stressed protecting the lower-paid from further falls in their living standards, and avoiding attempts to "force the pace of reform".