RUSSIAN leader Boris Yeltsin has returned from the coal fields of Siberia with a deal that promises to end the two-month strike that has hurt Soviet industry and fueled a political crisis. Mr. Yeltsin announced to a May Day rally of miners in Novokuznetsk that the coal mines would be transferred from the central government to the Russian Federation government he heads. But Russia isn't ``going to create its own bureaucratic structures,'' Yeltsin told reporters. He vowed that the miners would own the mines, be free to sell the coal and keep the earnings, including almost all of the precious foreign currency.
Yeltsin, at some political risk to himself, has offered the miners a graceful exit from a bitter political strike that demanded the resignation of the government of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin spent three days in the coal fields defending his own truce reached last week with Mr. Gorbachev.
``Yeltsin is working as a fireman,'' explains Pavel Voshanov, a senior Yeltsin aide. ``He has to put out the fire, because the fire can cause destabilizing processes that neither Russia nor the center can put an end to.''
The strike committee leaders have accepted the deal, but with the skepticism of those who have seen many past promises go unfulfilled. ``We don't have any confidence in the [Soviet] Union government,'' strike leader Vyacheslav Golikov told the Russian Information Agency. The strike leaders say the walkout will continue until a written agreement is signed between the Russian and central governments, promised for May 5.
The consummation of this agreement will be the first test of a broader pact reached last week between Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and the leaders of eight other Soviet republics. The joint declaration issued following that nine-hour gathering, called at Gorbachev's initiative, ended - at least for now - the political war between the two major Soviet political figures.
In principle, Gorbachev acknowledged the republican demand for a shift of power away from the center, embodied in a new treaty of union. Once that treaty is signed, a new constitution will be passed and elections, including for president, will follow. But at its core, the declaration was an attempt to halt the strike wave that spread from the mines to industrial enterprises in the Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Russia.
The miners' backing was key to Yeltsin's own recent political victory over conservative Communist forces that tried to oust him as head of the Russian parliament. He rode the strike movement to win approval of creation of a strong Russian presidency, which he seems certain to win in elections scheduled for June 12.
Now Yeltsin has run into fierce criticism from some among the radical wing of the democratic movement for aborting a challenge that many hoped would lead to real change in the Soviet political and economic system.
But the Yeltsin camp argues that the strike wave was as much a threat to them as to the central government.
``This wave of strikes cannot give birth to any normal political system,'' retorts Mr. Voshanov, who is also known as one the most astute political writers in Russia. The workers are motivated only by their instinctive reaction to having been ``robbed and deceived,'' he argues.
``The situation is very dangerous because any demagogue, any political adventurer, can mislead the people. There will be no question of democracy. Under such conditions, the most severe dictatorship can emerge.... Under present conditions, the most reactionary forces derived the most pleasure from this situation. It is very good that leaders, even those who opposed each other, understood the danger in time.''
Yeltsin and his associates defend the deal with Gorbachev as having satisfied the main demands of the miners, including calls for the government to resign. The document calls for the new constitution to be prepared within six months of the signing of the union treaty, followed by elections of all ``power bodies,'' a phrase that Yeltsin understands to include the presidency.
Gorbachev pushed for the union treaty to be signed by this month, but the republics won agreement to their insistence that the document be redrafted to accommodate their changes, to be signed in midsummmer.
The shift of the mines to republican jurisdiction is also offered by the Yeltsin government as evidence of real change. The miners made this demand last year, along with the demand that they be free to sell their coal as they want, without the interference of the system of centrally administered state orders.
This change ultimately has profound implications, striking at the core issue of who controls the economy. The breakup of the massive central industrial ministries, freeing enterprises to act independently, is a key part of market economic reforms. But the Gorbachev Cabinet has resisted such changes, arguing it would further the chaotic conditions in the economy.
The central government has also insisted on control of hard-currency earnings, saying the money is needed to pay foreign debts. About 40 percent of such money is now taken by the center; the rest goes to republics, but only to pay their share of the debt, leaving 6 percent for the enterprise. The Yeltsin coal deal offers the mines 80 percent, the rest taken by republican taxes.
``The miners have turned out to be the initiators of the destruction of the old command-administrative system and creators of a new system of economic management,'' Yeltsin reportedly told the miners rally on Wednesday. He presented the deal as a precedent for other industries.
But the document reached at the Gorbachev-republic meeting does not state anything about this issue. Gorbachev agreed to this verbally in order to settle the mine strike, says Yeltsin aide Voshanov. ``There is no guarantee this will be spread to other industries,'' he admits. Some things are stated concretely in the document, ``but in other cases, Yeltsin is seeing some gaps and trying to use them,'' Voshanov adds.
As a number of Soviet observers have pointed out, the document is ambiguous on some key points.
For example, the acknowledgment of republican rights rests entirely on a reference to ``sovereign states,'' rather than ``republics.'' But as a Tass commentary on Tuesday pointed out, this formula was contained in the draft union treaty published in early March, a draft rejected by almost all the republican leaders,
Behind their claims of a minor breakthrough, there is palpable fear in Yeltsin circles that the deal with Gorbachev could collapse.
``All the years of perestroika [restructuring] taught us the president can agree to something and then go back on his words,'' says Voshanov.