Siberian Coal Miners Threaten New Strike

Boris Yeltsin is losing support from coal miners, whose control over Russia's primary source of energy once gave him leverage over conservative rivals. Now the miners say officials in Moscow have all but forgotten their concerns.

ALMOST lost amid the din of this capital's political battle have been the pleas of Russia's coal miners, who now are threatening to strike if the government does not quickly meet their demands.

Coal miners traditionally have been the leaders in Russia's fledgling independent labor movement. They also have served as a crucial bulwark of support for President Boris Yeltsin. But union leaders now complain that they are not being listened to by the government and the president, who is involved in a bitter power struggle with parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov.

A strike "might be the only way to resolve the conflict [between miners and the government]. The political battle in Moscow is distracting our leaders from resolving some of our important questions," says Viktor Utkin, president of the Independent Trade Union of Coal Miners - known by its Russian acronym, NPG - which represents workers in the former Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

Since coal comprises more than 60 percent of the energy supply in the Commonwealth of Independent States, a prolonged miners' strike - such as the one in the spring of 1991 - could "undermine the entire economic and political stability of Russia," Mr. Utkin says.

"We want to avoid a strike because we have lots of experience in strikes, and they have grave consequences for everyone including the miners," says Nikolai Chasovskikh, an NPG leader in the Kuzbas coal region of eastern Siberia, in a telephone interview.

Despite the possible consequences, there is overwhelming support among Kuzbas miners to go on strike. The NPG miners, who make up about 80 percent of the underground workers in the Kuzbas, voted over the weekend to set March 1 as the strike deadline. If a labor agreement is not reached by then, the NPG miners say they will walk off the job. They also voted to continue the strike until all of their 18 demands are fulfilled.

In addition, many mines around the Arctic city of Vorkuta, about 800 miles northeast of Moscow, are also prepared to strike, Utkin says.

"The government can agree to anything, but not fulfill it. We are prepared for compromise, but we need guarantees," he says.

The miners' chief demands are for the timely payment of wages and state subsidies. Miners are among the best-paid workers in Russia, earning an average monthly salary of about 35,000 rubles (roughly $55) while the subsistence-level wage stands at about 12,000 rubles. But, NPG leaders complain, the government is often up to four months late in paying salaries. The government also is often delinquent in paying pensions and other social benefits, they say.

In addition, the miners are dissatisfied with the state's plan to privatize mines. A January decree issued by Mr. Yeltsin mandates that the state retain a 60 percent stake in coal mines undergoing privatization, with the remainder going to "shareholders." The NPG leadership favors another variant diminishing the government's role and creating greater opportunities for attracting foreign investment.

The other major area of miner dissatisfaction is crime, which has emerged as a serious problem in cities.

The NPG wants the Russian parliament to adopt quickly stricter penalties in crime-protection laws, and create an elite anti-street-crime police force under the joint control of the local administration and the Interior Ministry.

Although the NPG has concrete complaints, another reason for the strike threat, according to Utkin, is the perception that Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's government no longer fully supports radical economic reform.

"We feel that the government has changed course," Utkin says. "Chernomyrdin is siding with plant directors."

Utkin also lashed out at Mr. Chernomyrdin, charging that the prime minister was favoring the oil and gas sector over the coal industry.

Prior to becoming prime minister, Chernomyrdin spent much of his career in the oil and gas sector, including a stint as Russian minister of fuel and energy.

It was not until the miners threatened to strike that they caught the government's attention. First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Shumeiko held preliminary talks Feb. 18 with union officials to discuss ways to avoid a strike.

But the government's ability to follow up on good faith may be limited, Utkin says.

"The government itself doesn't know what it wants to do - it hasn't determined its position," he says.

Even if the government reaches agreement with the NPG and a strike is avoided, Yeltsin may have put a dent in the loyalty to the president on the part of miners in the Kuzbas and Vorkuta.

Although they crippled Russia's economy, the Kuzbas miners' unyielding support for Yeltsin during their strike in 1991 played a critical role in the then-parliament chairman's successful defense against hard-liner attempts at ousting him.

Now Yeltsin, the chief executive, once again finds himself in a political corner, fighting against the legislative branch to break a constitutional deadlock. But these days Yeltsin can only count on lukewarm support from miners, says Vladimir Bodyagin, an NPG leader from Vorkuta.

"Despite everything, we still support Yeltsin," Mr. Bodyagin says, "but that's because he's the only political figure around who can at least offer some hope for a better future."

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