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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

While rumor mill spins Yeltsin drops from sight

It takes the strangest things these days to get Moscow's overworked rumor mill whirling. No one gives a second glance at babushkas who double as entrepreneurs in the giant open-air flea market that has erupted on the city's streets. But when a Russian newspaper reported earlier this week that puppies and kittens were being slaughtered and sold on the street as meat, ears perked and eyes opened.


Is the rumor true? The answer is almost irrelevant. The story, however, highlights many of the issues now swirling through the fragile Commonwealth of Independent States: potential hunger, bard times and of course the omnipotence of Moscow's rumor mill.


One of the latest rumors coursing through the streets is that President Boris Yeltsin's health is failing. That the rumor should appear now is no surprise. After all, Yeltsin has retreated from the general population, limiting his schedule to flash appearances for the paparazzi.


Some could question his timing. Instead of shoring up support by pressing flesh with factory directors and the man on the street, as he did on his whirlwind tour after the first stage of price hikes were enacted Jan. 2, Yeltsin is laying low.


"Nobody knows what he is doing", said one prominent Western economist who works regularly with the Russian government and likened the Russian leader's method of rule to that of the French president. "He wants to preserve his freedom, to be able to slightly change course if necessary".


Yeltsin will need flexibility in the forthcoming weeks. The apocalypse which everyone anticipated when price hikes went into effect did not occur. The Russian temperament took hold. People were passive and seemed willing to wait, despite the hardships. But as winter melts and spring emerges, the nation and its leader are at a turning point.


The first stage of reform raised prices ten-fold, with salaries trailing miserably. The average monthly wage now hovers at around 1, 000 rubles while it takes almost double that amount just to make ends meet, according to the Moscow Statistical Agency. As the gap widens, a second jolt to the economy will be administered later this month. The government will free prices on yet another round of consumer goods and substantially boost the cost of oil and its related products. The cost of living continues to soar.


Industrial output has almost ground to a halt with Russian production falling by as much as 50 percent, according to the republic's Minister of Industry Alexander Titkin.


The unemployment outlook is no better. Benefits have just been slashed. Moscow alone faces chronic joblessness according to Igor Zaslavsky, who heads Moscow's Labor exchange, forecasting that one in five Muscovites is at risk of losing their job.


While the band of reformminded politicians keep asking the people to hold on, patience is waning. Thirty-four percent of those polled in Moscow and 33 percent in Kiev said they couldn't survive the price hikes, according to a public opinion poll released by Izvestia this week.


More disturbing results were revealed by a recent poll released by the National Public Opinion Studing Center in which 39 percent of 989 Russians polled said violence in the streets would be an avenue they would take to express their rage if living standards continue to fall. Just 1 percent more said they would choose to voice their anger using words.


Ukrainians followed hard on the heels of the Russians with 42 percent of the 592 respondents voting for violence and 31 percent for dialogue. Georgians, whose republic has been caught in the cross-fire of civil war, had a lower percentage of individuals willing to riot: 22 percent.


Though civil war in the streets of Moscow seems unlikely, blood has recently been spilled. Moscow city government pulled the reigns on hard-liners by banning their protest last month on the former Soviet Army Day. Omon troops were unleashed on Tverskaya Street and both sides claimed casualties.


Yeltsin was able to lay his wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier without being interrupted by catcalls from critics. He shirked responsibility about silencing his opponents. Instead, he passed the buck to Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov, who issued the ban. Now as the city gears up for next Tuesday's demonstration, tension mounts. A dangerous precedent has been set. One that Yeltsin must revoke. Instead, he remains silent.


"I voted for Yeltsin", said one old women on Army day demonstration, "I believed him. But it was a mistake".


It's time for the president to convince her why her initial instincts were correct. Conservative critics like Vice President Alexander Rutskoi are chomping at the bit waiting for Yeltsin to make a false move.


More Russians trust Rutskoi than any other member of Yeltsin's team, according to a survey released this week by the National Public Opinion Studies Center. The vice president logged a vote of confidence from 15 percent of respondents, up from just 4 percent in January. The largest group of those polled, though, 32 percent of the sample of 1, 038, preferred to register a vote of no confidence in the government .


The most prominent member of Yeltsin's reform squad, Yegor Gaidar, has stuck to his initial course of invoking harsh measures of shock therapy. The economics supremo had promised that things would get worse before they got better. and they certainly have.


Can the people of the splintered Soviet Union hold out much longer? Or will desperation set in, forcing some to extreme acts like disguising pets as food. It's time for Yeltsin to come out into the open and quash the rumors.