Prague, Feb. 2 (RFE/RL) - Hundreds of thousands of coal miners in Russia and Ukraine pressed their strikes today to demand unpaid wages and larger government subsidies for their ailing industry.
In Russia, about half the country's miners -- some 450,000 -- were reported to have participated in the walkout. In all,
81 percent of the pits were said to be shut down in the largest job
action since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The miners say
they are owed the equivalent of about $200 million in back salaries.
In Ukraine, 880,000 of 1.2 million coal miners struck or slowed down their work
nationwide, claiming they are owed the equivalent of $367 million for work performed.
About 80 percent of the mines were effected either by the shutdown or by
refusals to carry out coal deliveries.
Both strikes are in their second day. The miners are seeking
Soviet-era style subsidies, fearing inefficient pits will be shut down
without significant state support. Many hope to secure pay increases as
In Russia, correspondents say the strike could have serious
implications for President Boris Yeltsin. In 1989, a coal
miners strike did little to help instill confidence in Soviet
President Mikhail Gorbachev's economic policies. In 1991, there was
another miners strike -- this one backed by Yeltsin. By the end of
that year, the Soviet Union collapsed, Gorbachev was out and Yeltsin
became President of Russia.
Russia faces presidential elections in June. Yeltsin has not yet
announced whether he is a candidate for re-election, but analysts
believe he is likely to run. A prolonged strike could help Yeltsin's rivals -- particularly the communists and ultra-nationalists -- at the polls.
Yeltsin, who turned 65 yesterday, had tried to prevent the work stoppage.
He issued a decree last week that offered miners $127 million in back
pay. The deal was rejected.
Yeltsin's chief economic adviser, Alexander Y. Livshits, said that
the President had ordered the government to draft a "tough, monthly
schedule" to pay the miners. But Ruben Badalov, deputy chief of Russia's Union of Coal Industry Workers, said that "so far, the government's promises are not being met."
At a rally held in the Artic region of Vorkuta, strikers said, "A
miner can work on his knees...but he cannot live on his knees and
never will." Their banners asked, "Where is our money?"
In most cases, the mines are unable to come up with the wages
because deficit-plauged industries are lagging behind in payment for
the coal they consume.
Since the last coal strike, the Russian government already has
closed down 36 unprofitable mines and slashed state subsidies.
Today, Russian government and union representatives held talks but
were unable to resolve the dispute. The talks are scheduled to resume
Both Russia and Ukraine are heavily dependent on coal. However,
Russia has plenty of other energy sources, including natural gas and
oil. Ukraine, its nuclear industry weakened by the Chernobyl
disaster, relies more on coal for its fuel needs.
In a bid to avert the strike, the Ukrainian government had come up
with more than $1 million to cover one month's worth of miners' back
wages. Yesterday, Ukrainian TV reported that the government had
allocated additional funds amounting to more than $4 million.
The Ukrainian government plans to shut down up to 25 unprofitable
and outdated mines during the next three years. It also has been
negotiating with the World Bank for a $100 million loan to close down
its oldest mines and develop more efficient ones.