Prague, Feb. 1 (RFE/RL) - More than half a million coal miners have walked off the job across Russia today in support of an indefinite nationwide strike that aims to gain higher wages and back pay for miners, and to secure government subsidies that would bail out the ailing industry.
A successful strike could force President Boris Yeltsin to back away from austerity measures in Russia's 1996 budget. That could, in turn, threaten future credits to Moscow from the International Monetary Fund.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of coal miners across Ukraine also walked off the job today to demand unpaid wages and government subsidies for their ailing industry.
Itar-Tass reports that the Russian strikes have brought mining operations to a halt at 87 percent of the country's mines. The agency says mines in the far eastern regions of Primorye and Sakhalin Island were the first to stop work.
Trade union officials say the strike leaders made contact today with Yeltsin's economic adviser, Alexander Livshits. Livshits told Itar-Tass that the finance ministry had paid off the final installment on more than $120 million in back wages owed to the miners for their work last year. He said talks are continuing to devise a timetable for paying wage arrears for this year.
Meanwhile, Yeltsin reportedly signed a decree today ordering First Deputy Finance Minister Andrei Petrov to draw up such a timetable. The decree also calls for Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to report to Yeltsin at least once every two weeks on the matter.
Following talks with Chernomyrdin last week, union leaders called proposed government measures "piecemeal." Yeltsin has promised to create a "presidential fund" to pay back wages - a sum union officials say totals the ruble-equivalent of more than $200 million.
The head of the economic ministry's coal sector, Igor Kozhukhovsky, has warned that a nationwide mining strike could severely cripple the struggling industry financially, and put some coal enterprises out of business altogether.
Ukrainian miners are facing similar difficulties in collecting about $122 million in back wages. Trade unionists in eastern Ukraine's aging Donbass coal field, the country's largest, said about 600,000 miners were taking part in strikes at 123 of 251 pits today. They said workers at nearly all the other pits were refusing to load coal.
Government officials said only 80 mines were shut down but admitted the strike is gaining momentum. Collectives representing workers at about 160 Ukrainian mines announced their support for an indefinite nationwide strike beginning today.
Representatives from the Committee for Ukrainian Miners say workers at only two mining concerns - Pervomaysksugol in Lugansk and Makeevugol in Donetsk - have refused to honor the work stoppage.
Other mines unaffiliated with the coal miners' union reportedly will continue operations but have promised not to make coal deliveries. Some miners in western Ukraine say they will focus on halting coal shipments from Poland.
Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma met yesterday with Oleksander Stoyan, the chairman of the Ukrainian Federation of Unions, in an attempt to work out a social insurance plan for miners.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Yevhen Marchuk said on national television last night that the government has vowed to begin paying wage arrears to miners without increasing the country's money supply.
Meanwhile, the country's steelworkers, who say they morally support the miners, are appealing to the coal miners to supply the country's coke and steel works with coal so as to avoid shutting down industrial factories across the nation. It is unclear whether the miners will heed that plea. Ukraine's steel industry is one of the coal industry's biggest debtors.