MOSCOW (AP) _ Scores of angry smokers blocked a street next to Red Square for several hours Wednesday as public outrage over a summer-long cigarette shortage struck at the heart of Soviet authority.
The protest in a driving rain in Revolution Square adjacent to the Lenin Central Museum ended when a truck delivered a dozen cases of cigarettes to a nearby tobacco kiosk. A line of more than 230 people formed immediately.
″It’s only a temporary success,″ said protester Sergei Borinov, watching the truck driver unload the cigarettes. ″They bring something, sell it in 10 minutes, and again there is nothing. This is the way we live.″
The incident was the latest rebellion by smokers who have staged strikes and other demonstrations over an acute cigarette shortage that has lasted all summer.
On Monday, 200 people blocked traffic in Leningrad, 300 staged a similar protest in Gorky, and 3,000 people rallied at a plant in Yaroslavl, the Interfax news service reported.
In Wednesday’s protest, about 120 soggy demonstrators formed a crude human chain across the wide street from the Moscow Hotel to the Lenin museum, stopping six buses and turning back cars.
Some passengers patiently waited aboard three of the buses, and the driver of one of them opened his window, winked playfully at the protesters and said: ″Give me a cigarette 3/8″
But the atmosphere was tense. At one point, 20 testy demonstrators surrounded Deputy Mayor Sergei B. Stankevich, a radical politician elected to the Moscow city council along with other reformers this year.
They peppered him with questions on when the cigarette shortage would end.
″This has never happened before 3/8″ a woman shouted at Stankevich.
″Why was there a good supply of everything in Brezhnev’s time?″ a man yelled, referring to the more stable economy under former leader Leonid I. Brezhnev.
″Why are they selling cigarettes on the black market for 2 to 3 rubles?″ shouted another. ″For 5 rubles 3/8″ interjected another.
Cigarettes usually cost about about 80 cents a pack but black market prices have ranged from $3.20 to $4.80. Kosmos, a premium brand, has cost up to $8.
Stankevich said 22 of 24 cigarette factories have closed for repairs in the Russian republic. The government newspaper Izvestia said the Soviet Union - a nation of 70 million smokers - bought 5 billion fewer cigarettes from Bulgaria, a principal supplier, this year because of a lack of hard currency.
″My dear,″ an agitated Stankevich told one woman in the crowd, ″if you think it is so easy to buy hundreds of millions of dollars of cigarettes in two hours, you are strongly mistaken.″
″Do you think we have a lot of hard currency?″ he asked. ″You know what the situation is: we are bankrupt.″
When one man suggested the Soviet Union use some of its gold reserves, Stankevich snapped back: ″Gold reserves have nothing to do with this 3/8″
″You see, there is a choice for us - either we spend money on medicine or on cigarettes,″ he said. ″Now we have had to take the money for medicine and buy cigarettes.
″Tomorrow, invalids will appear in the streets because they will not be able to buy important medicine they need. Then we will have to stop buying cigarettes and start buying medicine again,″ Stankevich said.
He said he had met with Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov and they decided to raid army storehouses of shag - a coarse tobacco - and deliver it to key points in Moscow.
″As to cigarettes, the situation will improve. Several planes are arriving in Moscow. They are already landing at the airport,″ he pledged.
Stankevich said there were no plans to ration cigarettes, saying it would be too difficult to print and distribute ration coupons. Informally, however, rationing already exists. Moscow kiosks limit customers to two packs - out-of- towners to one.
After enduring questions for more than 20 minutes, Stankevich, who told his questioners he is a non-smoker, became sarcastic when someone suggested starting a rebellion.
″Yes, this is the only thing we know how to do,″ he said, his voice heavy with irony. ″Let’s make a revolution. This is what we’re accustomed to. At least we’ll have a good time.″
One woman, her wet hair streaked down her face, sneered at Stankevich: ″Why are you insulting the people?″
Stankevich retorted: ″Don’t speak on behalf of the whole people 3/8″