By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — Threatening to embarrass President Boris Yeltsin with national protest actions on the eve of his Constitutional Assembly, Russian tertiary students on June 3 forced the government to meet a series of unfulfilled promises on scholarships and other allowances.
As part of the barrage of promises with which he sought to secure support before the April 25 referendum, Yeltsin issued a decree in which he pledged big increases in scholarship payments. Instead of 1800 roubles a month (about US$1.80), students were to receive 4250 roubles, plus a further 85 roubles a day for meals. Scholarships and benefits were to be indexed to inflation.
Throughout April and May, however, Yeltsin's promises remained exclusively on paper. Students continued to be paid at the old rate — and there was no indication that the situation would change in June. Many students, especially the 40% or so who do not receive additional financing from their families, were faced with abandoning their studies.
An additional grievance was the fact that at about this time, various categories of students in specialised secondary institutes and tertiary colleges lost their military conscription deferments.
Students have been among the social layers most supportive of Yeltsin and his policies. In this case, however, they were left with no alternative but to organise mass protests.
During May seven student leaders addressed a letter to Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, demanding that the president's promises be met.
The demands were repeated at a May 31 press conference called by the Russian Association of Student Union Organisations. The association's head, Oleg Denisov, also called for the restoration of travel provisions including free transport home once a year. Increased rail fares, Denisov pointed out, had made it
impossible for many students to return home during summer holidays.
Unless the demands were met, student leaders indicated, a national day of action planned for June 4 would go ahead. Students would be called upon to rally in numerous cities.
The Moscow demonstration, announced for Pushkin Square, the traditional site for meetings by the democratic opposition during the perestroika era, was promptly banned by the pro-Yeltsin city government.
The planned demonstrations would almost certainly have been large. St Petersburg is reported to have a quarter of a million post-secondary students, and the number in Moscow is even greater; tens of thousands of people could have been expected to gather on the streets.
Coming the day before the opening of the assembly at which Yeltsin hoped to win a show of support for his draft constitution, the rallies would have dealt the president a significant blow by drawing attention to the small worth of his promises and underlining the point that many who expressed a general "confidence" in him in the referendum are by no means ready to endorse all his actions.
To avoid being shown up, Yeltsin was ready to pay a considerable price. On June 3 a meeting was held between government representatives and student leaders. The students were told that funds were being allotted to pay the promised increases for April and May, and that scholarship payments for the summer months would be made in advance at the new rates. Various travel concessions were pledged, including the right of students to free vacation rail tickets to and from their homes. In return, the student leaders agreed to call off the demonstrations.
Though rapid and painless, the students' victory was not complete. Together with the meal allowance — which is, in fact, too little to buy even one basic meal a day in most university cafeterias — the new scholarships will be worth about US$7 a month. Though more than the minimum wage and many pensions, this is still too little for students to live on without supplementary work or help from their families.
It may be that the main value of this episode — for students and others — is that it points to the strategy that is likely to win concessions in Yeltsin's Russia: united action, with the largest possible number of participants, around militant demands.