MORE than 25,000 workers gathered in the central square of the Byelorussian capital of Minsk yesterday to protest the massive price rises introduced earlier this week. Byelorussian officials reached by telephone from Moscow said the workers marched into the square in organized columns, following meetings held on Wednesday in factories around the city.
The demonstration signals what may be the beginning of a wave of industrial unrest in response to the economic austerity policies of the government of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The government offered striking coal miners a large boost in pay on Wednesday in an attempt to end that strike, but miners appeared to reject the offers.
The miners have gotten backing from industrial workers across the Soviet Union including warning strikes in large metallurgical plants last week. The demonstration in the normally quiet and conservative city of Minsk marks a significant escalation of labor unrest. The march appears to be the work of the newly formed independent Byelorussian Confederation of Labor, which held its first congress on March 31.
The Byelorussian labor congress sent telegrams of solidarity to both the miners and to the Russian government of Boris Yeltsin.
Mr. Yeltsin, who also has the backing of the miners, is locked in a confrontation with Mr. Gorbachev and the Soviet Communist Party.
At the same time, Soviet government officials admit that conditions of economic collapse may be even worse than previously acknowledged. In a letter circulated to the Soviet parliament earlier this week, senior economic officials said the budget deficit for the first quarter of the year was already higher than the projected deficit for the entire year. The officials blamed republican governments for withholding tax contributions to the central coffers.
Without money from the republics, the officials warned the Finance Ministry might resort to huge new loans and to further printing of bank notes. ``If the situation does not change, we will enter a spiral of hyperinflation as a result,'' the appeal stated.
An even more critical situation prevails in stores, where retail prices on everything from bread to television sets was raised by an average of 60 percent from Tuesday. Soviet consumers had assumed that in the short term at least the higher prices would draw forth goods that government enterprises had held back in anticipation of the price hikes.
But so far there is no evidence of the hidden treasures. ``The commodity stocks are exhausted and continue to melt away,'' Deputy Minister of Trade P. Kondrashov told readers of the government daily Izvestia on Wednesday.
These revelations may justify the skeptical reaction of striking coal miners to the government's latest offer. The miners, who began their strike on March 1, are raising political demands for the resignation of the Gorbachev government as well as pay and pension demands that have been accumulated over two years of intermittent strikes.
After two days of talks in which he initially refused even to discuss the economic demands, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov came up with a staged increase of salaries by 100 percent over the next year in exchange for an increase in coal production. The miners had sought an immediate 150 percent pay hike. The package also offered to allow coal enterprises to sell up to 7 percent of production for market prices and to provide pensions after 25 years of employment.
``There will be few people who will be bought by those pieces that the government is offering us,'' Alexander Aslanidi, the deputy chairman of the strike committee at Kuzbass, the Soviet Union's largest coal field, told Russia's Information Agency. The only result of the talks was to replace one set of unfulfilled promises with another, he said.