Russian Voters Seem Poised to Vent Anger


The people of this quiet, well-tended metropolis have abundant food at some of Russia's lowest prices. They boast a new library and a new children's hospital, the best in Siberia. Thanks to free-market reforms, their oil refinery is earning export dollars and plowing tax rubles into city parks, roads and job training centers.

But many people in Omsk have not seen a paycheck in months, and as they go to the polls today that only darkens the foul and fearful mood here about the path Russia is on.

Unfortunately for President Boris N. Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, as Omsk votes, so does the country.

The returns here in Russia's parliamentary election are likely to be as bad for those distant rulers as the verbal abuse they get daily at the local bus station, farmer's markets, the beleaguered high-tech defense plants and even the flourishing oil refinery.

Returns from Omsk have been a bellwether in the last three nationwide elections--when Yeltsin captured the presidency in June 1991; when he won a vote of confidence in April 1993; and when his extremist foes scored a comeback in the Parliament elected in December that year.

Siberians are a stoic lot, but interviews last week in Russia's seventh-largest city, 1,360 miles from Moscow, indicated that their provincial calm is even more unsettled by the pain and insecurity of reform than it was two winters ago.

In numbers at least as big as then, Omsk sounds ready to cast ballots of protest for the resurgent Communist Party or for Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky's neo-fascists--a result that, repeated across Russia, would shake, if not reverse, the transition from Soviet rule.

As thanks for all the local improvements here, voters are expected to elect the incumbent mayor and governor--proven, Soviet-schooled managers. For much of what's wrong, Moscow gets the blame.

Voters complain of miserable pensions, organized crime, war in Chechnya, a shortage of housing. The elderly poor resent anyone's prosperity as unfair gain. The young regard people who run things as remote, arbitrary. Afraid of losing their jobs, wage earners feel less freedom than in Soviet days to criticize authority.

Omsk, a city of 1.2 million people, has been wounded by the slow collapse of its chief employer, the defense industry. Reformers in Moscow finally ended subsidies to overstaffed military plants here a year ago, but instead of cutting losses through layoffs, plant managers now delay wages to nearly all their 70,000 workers for up to six months, hoping that enough will quit.

Most hang on, bitterly.

"Yeltsin once vowed he would lie down on the rails to defend our standard of living," said Lyudmila Petrova, bursting into tears in the snow outside Polyot, the aviation plant where she has worked 40 of her 56 years. "We're always being deceived! How long will we be tortured while others are rolling in butter?"

Retired as a lathe operator but unable to live on a $50 monthly pension, Petrova went back to work sorting spare parts. But she has not been paid since August, and some days she can't even scrape up bus fare.

In despair, she is switching from Russia's Choice, the free-market party that got her vote in 1993, to the Communists.

"I no longer trust anyone," she said. "But at least under communism, they had a system that took care of workers."

Petrova was one of 40 Omsk voters interviewed at random by The Times. Twenty-five had decided how to vote: six each for the Communists and Zhirinovsky's party, and two for a Communist splinter group in the balloting for nationwide party slates to fill half the 450-seat Duma.

Seven of the voters were divided among four parties led by free-market democrats, some of whom served in Yeltsin's government until early 1994 and are now in opposition. Four voters favored centrist parties, 12 were undecided and three were staying home.

None of those interviewed were set on voting for Our Home Is Russia, the "party of power" created by Chernomyrdin at Yeltsin's behest to rally support for their brand of gradual reform. But five of the undecided were leaning that way.

Most nationwide polls show Our Home doing better, though still behind the Communists. But the ruling party was damaged here by Omsk's growing independence; Gov. Leonid K. Polezhayev, appointed by Yeltsin but now trying to get elected, blamed Moscow for cutting defense subsidies and refused to endorse Chernomyrdin's party.

A poor showing will not necessarily bring down or alter Chernomyrdin's government. No opposition group or coalition is likely to assemble the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to change the constitution or override presidential vetoes.

But the election offers a gauge of popular support for Yeltsin as he ponders running in June for a second term, and for the handful of presidential hopefuls who lead party slates in today's race.

Just three voters interviewed here approve of Yeltsin's performance; just one said he should run again.

Others dismissed the 64-year-old leader, who is recovering from heart trouble, as too sick, alcoholic and easily manipulated.

"If Yeltsin worked like he drinks, we would be living in paradise now," said Yulia Ogorodnikova, 25, a linguistics student who plans to vote for Women of Russia, a centrist party. "While he's been drinking, the mafia has taken over the country."

In search of a new president, Russia's pensioners, who make up at least one-third of those who vote, weigh in heavily for Zhirinovsky and Communist leader Gennady A. Zyuganov.

In interviews, many pensioners displayed their anger about reform and their nostalgia for a simpler past with in-your-face haranguing, stomping or raising of fists.

Younger people, those adaptable to the changes, were more ambivalent, even indifferent, toward politics.

" 'Santa Barbara' is more interesting," said Andrei Prokhorov, a 34-year-old former aircraft engineer studying finance at a city job training center. "We could put forward a candidate from the cast of 'Santa Barbara,' " an American television soap opera shown here.

What is more striking is that some who benefit from reform are voting for anti-reform candidates simply because life around them is so troubled.

There is some such sentiment at the oil refinery on Omsk's northern edge, where 40,000 workers start and end their shifts in winter darkness. They are paid well and on time, with benefits such as free medical and child care.

But they go home on the bus with workers from dying plants and worry how long their own fortune can last.

"My life is good, but that doesn't make me feel any better about the country," said Alexander Smirnov, 58, the refinery's deputy chief of commodity handling. "I am shocked at how poorly others live, that the hopes we pinned on perestroika haven't come true.

"There is too much uncertainty. Nothing has been thought out," added Smirnov, who intends to vote for a Communist splinter party. "Russia needs a strong leader, with some elements of a dictatorship, to shake up the country and take it out of this crisis."

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