By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — Several hundred peasants and their supporters staged a lively picket outside the offices of the Russian government here on September 15. Organised by the trade unions of the agro-industrial complex, the action was the high point of a national "Day of Unity of the Peasants of Russia". Farm workers' representatives travelled from as far as central Siberia to take part.
The picketers' demands included a big increase in the share of national income spent on rural development, renegotiation of farm debts and moves to ensure a fair relationship between the prices of industrial and agricultural products. Russian Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi expressed sympathy for the protesters, and held discussions with a group of their leaders.
Since the Yeltsin government began its "reforms" in earnest at the beginning of this year, a difficult situation in the countryside has grown rapidly worse. The prices of such inputs as machinery and fertiliser have risen much more steeply than the prices which farmers receive for their produce. Some months ago, 80% of rural enterprises were reported to be technically bankrupt.
Yeltsin and his ministers have paid relatively little attention to agriculture, and their statements on the subject have often had an ideological rather than a practical bent. The government views the key problems of the countryside as stemming from the persistence of collectivised property forms — the state and collective farms.
Government policy has centred on a drive for rapid privatisation, and on an ill-conceived and mainly unsuccessful scheme to encourage peasants to set up as individual farmers. Meanwhile, credits remain inadequate and taxation burdensome. The rural sector's acute need for basic capital infrastructure remains unaddressed.
Russian peasants have a long history of resisting the ill-informed dictates of city-bred rulers, and with a hungry winter ahead, relations between the cities and the countryside are again set to become a key issue in political life.
Unable to afford the products of the cities, many farms now have little incentive to hand over their crops. A classic confrontation of this type is emerging between the Moscow city government and Moscow province, which is responsible for most of the capital's vegetable supplies.
On September 14 it was reported that, compared with last year, the Moscow city vegetable combines had received only a quarter of the quantity of potatoes, and 40% of the quantity of other vegetables.
Farms in Moscow province are demanding higher prices and increased get them, are directing their produce to other cities in the region.