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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

On Eve of Strike, Kremlin Pledges to Pay

The government pleaded for calm and pledged quick payments of months-old pension and wage arrears Wednesday on the eve of a nationwide protest that trade unions predict will bring 20 million disgruntled Russians into the streets.

"Addressing everybody, I urge people to display wisdom," Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin told a news conference. "There are forces that want to rock the boat ... and aggravate the situation in the country."

Appealing for cool heads, Chernomyrdin promised a March issue of 11.8 trillion rubles ($2.1 billion) to cover partial wage and pension arrears. An additional 6.4 trillion rubles has been earmarked specifically for the coal sector.

Coal miners were the core of President Boris Yeltsin's support in his rise to power in 1991, but have been among the hardest-hit workers in Russia's bumpy transition to a market economy.

Police and transportation workers have been on heightened alert status since Tuesday in Moscow, where 100,000 protesters are scheduled to descend on the Kremlin from various meeting points throughout the afternoon Thursday.

Both government officials and union leaders have appealed for order during the protest. Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov said his troops have warned "known troublemakers" to stay home, ORT television reported.

As part of a bid to sooth tensions in the regions, First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais last week toured the southern Siberian coal fields in Kuzbass, the end of last year. Of that sum, 10 trillion rubles are owed by the state.

"This action will not help to solve our problems. It will only lessen the chance of them being solved," Chernomyrdin said of the mass demonstrations planned for Thursday. "In some respect, it will only aggravate the situation."

Widespread walkouts are predicted in the Kuzbass region and the port towns of the Far East. In the Ural Mountains region of central Russia, giant plants like the Chelyabinsk tractor factory and the Zlatoust steel mill are expected to fall silent. Hundreds of schools throughout Russia will shut their doors for the day as teachers join the protest to press their wage demands.

One Moscow trade union leader urged fellow labor officials Wednesday to cancel the action, saying regional government sources had informed him that some protesters are prepared to charge weapon storage sites and spread violence to some outlying country districts.

The official, Andrei Kasyakov, who heads a detectives and private security trade association -- one of 43 independent trade unions in Russia -- claimed to have specific information that Communists were equipping themselves for carnage.

He singled out Communist Party chief of staff Valentin Kuptsov as a main culprit. Communist Party officials have denied that they support any violent measures.

In the weeks preceding the strike, Communist leaders and trade unions have jockeyed for position over who should be at the helm of Thursday's protests. Unions come out on top, although forces of the left have been officially invited to participate.

While more mainstream Communist parties have limited themselves to calls for the government to resign, more fringe elements in the movement have been difficult to appease.

"We thank the trade unions for bringing people into the street, and like true Bolsheviks, we will join them," said Viktor Anpilov, whose Stalinist Working Russia party just failed to get the minimum 5 percent of the vote necessary to make it into parliament in the December 1995 State Duma elections.

Anpilov lamented that Russians at present appear more peaceful than protesters in Albania, where weeks of armed unrest have followed the crash of nationwide pyramid investment schemes.

"The people of Albania showed brilliantly how to stand up against a cheating government," Anpilov said. "Unfortunately, today it is impossible for us to follow their example because our masses are not ready yet. But maybe the day after tomorrow we can march on Moscow."

Meanwhile, Russian media reported grumbling from the poor but historically apolitical armed forces. NTV television said this week that a paratrooper division in the southern Russian city of Stavropol refused to leave for routine exercises because the soldiers were owed back pay.

There are signs, however, that the protest will end peacefully and that far fewer people will take part than labor leaders predict.

Union leaders expected 20 million people to take to the streets in a similar call last November, but state officials afterward said only a fraction of that number actually came out.

Russian Labor Minister Gennady Melkyan said he saw nothing extraordinary in Thursday's strike." These kind of actions happen everywhere, but they should be civilized. I approach this philosophically," Melkyan was quoted as saying in the Wednesday edition of the newspaper Kommersant Daily.