DONETSK, UKRAINE — NEARING the end of his eight-hour shift at Donetsk's Red Star coal mine, Viktor Moskolienko and his fellow miners board the cramped, rusty train that will carry them to the surface from their workplace one mile under the ground.
``See how we live now,'' he says, gesturing to the Dickensian conditions around him. ``We'll give [new President Leonid] Kuchma a few weeks to improve things here, but not much more.''
Less than a month after his July 10 election victory, Ukraine's new president is facing demands for quick action from the people who elected him. Mr. Kuchma will meet US Vice President Al Gore Jr. today when he makes a stopover in the capital, Kiev. The meeting is the first high-level Clinton administration contact with the new president.
Ninety percent of voters in the Donetsk and Donbass regions supported Kuchma in his election battle against former President Leonid Kravchuk.
East Ukraine's predominantly Russian-speaking population now wants Kuchma to deliver on his campaign pledge to restore economic ties with Russia. The reasons become quickly apparent down in the dusty blackness of the Red Star Mine.
Shortage of wood
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the colliery has lost its once-guaranteed supply of cheap wood from Russia. The shortage has contributed to a fall in the mine's productivity, exacerbated by the difficulties encountered in repairing and replacing broken digging machinery. The three shafts at the Red Star mine now produce 1,500 tons of coal daily, nearly half the figure of 2,800 tons produced in 1991.
Since April, the state-owned mine has been paying wages late. Average monthly salaries compare badly to the wages paid to miners across the border in Russia. Workers like Moskolienko say the situation is becoming desperate. He ascribes blame to the shattering of economic links between Ukraine and Russia in the aftermath of the USSR's collapse. ``We'll get nowhere without Russia, we're bound together,'' he says.
But representatives of the Independent Union of Miners in the Donbass expect little rapid improvement in their members' predicament. The union's deputy chairman, Nikolai Kurishko, says the miners will ``give Kuchma a chance to show us what he can do.'' But, pointing to Kuchma's 11 months as prime minister in 1992-93, he says ``Kuchma is just as responsible for destroying the nation's economy as Kravchuk.''
Anticipating a strike
The miners' union has already started a strike fund in anticipation of industrial action later this year. Members pay 2 percent of their monthly salary into the fund, which is designed to sustain miners through any future dispute.
The threat from the Donetsk miner is just one of a number of difficulties Kuchma faces in the aftermath of his victory.
In the predominantly agricultural west of the country, voters overwhelmingly failed to support him, and say that any renewal of ties with Russia will threaten Ukraine's fragile statehood.
In Kiev, the parliament remains dominated by hard-liners who oppose the president's demand for sweeping powers to introduce reforms that his predecessor failed to introduce.
In statements following his inauguration, Kuchma pledged to unite the country by serving as ``president of all Ukrainians'' and vowed to introduce ``evolutionary, not revolutionary reforms.''
Analyst Ian Brzezinski, who is on the council of advisors to the Ukrainian parliament, says Kuchma can get his administration off to a successful start by restoring some ties with Russia while simultaneously engaging in economic reform.
``If Kuchma can establish himself as the decisive leader ... then he'll be able to pull it off,'' says Mr. Brzezinski. ``If he is able to articulate a vision that includes market reforms as a step toward a prosperous Ukraine, he'll be able to generate the popular support....''
But he acknowledges that over the short-term, the miners of Eastern Ukraine will suffer considerable economic hardship, increasing the possibility of industrial and political unrest.
Moskolienko says if necessary he will strike again to avoid finding himself facing a bleak retirement. ``We can't go on living like this. We're ready for anything'' he says. ``People who have toiled for 40 years in the mines are now poor as beggars.''