By Poul Funder Larsen
MOSCOW — Conservative communist forces convened the biggest anti-Yeltsin demonstration so far on the Manezh Square in central Moscow on March 17. According to the Russian press, between 40,000 and 70,000 people were present.
Soviet flags plus a few Russian nationalist banners and the odd picture of Stalin dominated the scene. A string of speakers, primarily from the conservative Russian Communist Workers Party, addressed the main theme: the need to rebuild the Soviet Union in order to comply with the alleged "will of the people" expressed in the all-Union referendum on March 17 last year.
The tone of the meeting was set when the national anthem of the non-existent Union sounded through the loudspeakers, and the chairperson led the crowd in a chant of "Long live the Soviet Union!".
Nationalist groups such as the Congress of Civil and Patriotic Forces were also present. Only a minority of the demonstrators seemed to identify with them, but they too had their share of the show.
An orthodox priest chanted a prayer, and there were several unabashedly chauvinist speakers. One of these was television reporter Alexander Nevzorov from St Petersburg, who called on the participants: "Patriots of Russia! Save the spiritual power of the Russian people!"
Some minor groups tried to show their contempt for the politics of the demonstration. A group of punks laid out a Soviet flag on the ground, then ostentatiously spat and trampled on it. A carefully organised column of around 200 liberals with Russian flags tried in vain to make themselves heard. One knowledgeable demonstrator claimed to have seen the vice-chairman of the Moscow KGB within this group.
Patience with the government is wearing thin. Poll results published in Izvestiya on March 16 showed that 69% of the population were "dissatisfied with their lives", while 36% found it "impossible to live with the new prices". Yeltsin's popularity rating, in the past remarkably durable, is dropping markedly.
However, there is a discrepancy between the discontent and the number of people ready to support the actions of the neo-Stalinists and patriots. The poll showed that only 2.5% of Muscovites considered attending the March 17 demonstration.
An acute crisis of leadership afflicts the opposition. The various brands of conservative communists do not present any real alternative; their proposed way forward is in fact a retreat into the past, to the "good old days" of Brezhnev or even Stalin. They present the anti-Semitic Albert Makashov, who was a total failure in the presidential elections of Russia in June 1991, as their candidate for a "new" Russian leader.
The trade unions are the only force which at present could act as the backbone of an alternative to the liberals and the neo-Stalinists. But the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions (MFP) has been astonishingly passive. At a press conference reported in the trade union paper Trud on March 17, MFP chair Mikhail Shmakov attacked the policies of the Yeltsin government, reporting that the cost of living in Moscow had increased 10 times while wages had risen only 3.7 times. However, no action by the trade unions has been announced.
During the next period the main tasks of Russian leftists will include putting pressure on the trade unions and other workers' organisations to engage in active political struggle for the rights of their members.