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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EDITORIAL: Blame Game Won't Settle Wage Arrears




If you're a government scientist in one of Russia's regions, odds are you haven't been paid for two or three months. If you're a teacher who happens to live in the wrong region, it might be more like six months since your last paycheck arrived.


In early December, the Russian government owed its state-sector workers more than $1.6 billion in back wages. Most are owed a month or two of back pay, but for every worker whose wages are paid in a timely fashion, there is another who is owed six months or more.


In a sea of bureaucratic euphemisms like "wage arrears," it is easy to lose sight of the impact: parents unable to feed their families properly or put shoes on their children's feet.


And their government does not seem to care.


President Boris Yeltsin pretends to sympathize. Last April, he explicitly ordered his team of "reformers" to make sure every doctor, miner and other state employee was paid up in full by Jan. 1.


When it became clear by late December that there was no way first deputy prime ministers Boris Nemtsov and Anatoly Chubais would meet his deadline, he seemed surprised, although the rest of the government had known for months. "The main blame rests with us, the country's leadership," Yeltsin conceded. But his words rang hollow. Instead of taking responsibility, he just pointed to his ministers.


He said he had expected 1997 economic results to be better, and that he awaits "breakthrough ideas" in 1998 -- veiled potshots at Chubais and Nemtsov that potentially presage their eventual ouster. Yeltsin has become something of a master at taking opposition positions to his own government, as if he had not appointed its ministers and set its agenda.


Chubais and Nemtsov, too, have joined the blame game. While favorable economic conditions once made Yeltsin's deadline seem achievable, chaos wreaked by the Asian financial crisis on Russia's ability to borrow and raise cash through state sell-offs put it out of reach.


Through a Herculean effort, Nemtsov said, adequate funds were sent to the regions for disbursal last week, although the government now concedes that most employees will not receive their back pay until later this month. And in a move that infuriated Yeltsin, who is trying to maintain good relations with the regions, Nemtsov blamed any failure to pay back wages on local governors.


Yeltsin has his finger pointed at his ministers; his ministers have their fingers pointed at the regions; and the regions have their fingers pointed at Yeltsin's government. All that many families of Russia can point to are empty larders and bank accounts.