Prague, Jan. 24 (RFE/RL) - Once the loyal allies of President Boris Yeltsin, workers in Russia's coal industry are growing increasingly disillusioned with his government's economic policies. They say that these policies have brought them little relief.
Some 500 miners and mining union representatives staged a protest today in front of the seat of the government in Moscow, the so-called "White House," demanding payment of back wages. They also called for an urgent government action to save their ailing industry. The demonstrators threatened to launch a nationwide strike on February 1 if their demands are not met.
Vitaly Budko, chairman of the Russian Committee of Independent Coal Industry Workers (Rosugleprof), told Itar-Tass today that a final decision on whether to launch the strike will be made later today.
Meanwhile, coal miners in Russia's Rostov region picketed in front of local government offices demanding government financial support for the industry and payment on the huge debt owed by the purchasers of the region's coal. The Rostov coal miners have threatened to join the strike if the government fails to act.
Yesterday, representatives of Russia's two biggest coal miners unions met in the Russian Artic city of Vorkuta and pledged also to join the strike.
Coal miners and other industrial workers in Ukraine's Donetsk region are to decide tomorrow if and when to launch their own strike over similar issues of back pay and working conditions.
Amid threats of growing industrial unrest, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin met with coal mining and union officials yesterday in Moscow to offer assurances that the government would promptly address the issues.
The Interfax news agency reports that Chernomyrdin had said the Ministry of Economics and other and agencies were given 10 days to sign agreements with the miners.
Chernomyrdin had reportedly also said that the Finance Ministry is to devise a timescale for paying the government debt to the miners. The government says the debt totals more than 400 billion roubles. But a coal mining union official told Interfax that the government owes an additional 900 billion roubles in wage arrears.
Chernomyrdin reportedly informed the mining and union officials that the federal government had already earmarked 7.5 trillion rubles for the industry during the current year. Moreover, he was said to have promised that part of $500 million in World Bank credits would be made available to the coal industry.
But coal mining and union officials remained unimpressed. Vitaly Budko said that the government measures were "piecemeal" and that "the amount of money promised is obviously not enough."
Yuri Malyshev, director of the state-owned "Rosugol" coal company, predicted the government program probably would fail to stop unions from going ahead with their planned strike.
Malyshev also criticized the ways that coal is being supplied to distributors. He said this is still mostly done under barter agreements. He also said that the consumers, rather than the government, remain the industry's largest debtors. Malyshev went on to say that the purchasers of coal owe the industry some 4.2 trillion rubles. He said that mining companies must get at least 40 percent of the purchase price up front to cover wages for miners and other coal industry workers.
For his part, Budko blamed mining difficulties on "exorbitant" taxes. He said that taxes take about 80 percent of the indutry's earnings. He said coal mine officials are demanding the tax rate be lowered to about 50 percent.
Malyshev expressed concern over the government's delay in naming a replacement for former First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais, who had chaired a government committee focusing on coal industry issues. Chernomyrdin has reportedly requested Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Yarov, who is in charge of social welfare policy, to fill the post until a permanent replacement is found.
But it remains to be seen whether a cash-strapped Russian government will be able to mollify the country's estimated 800,000 miners. The task is politically sensitive.
In 1989, one mine's walkout over a soap shortage escalated into a nationwide strike that eventually undermined the authority of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and hastened the demise of the Soviet Union itself.
At that time, miners called for privatization and free-market reforms, and became some of Yeltsin's most ardent supporters. But that relationship has soured now, with miners calling for an end to Yeltsin's reforms.
Yevgeny Vasiliev, an expert with the World Bank, noted last month that miners goals have changed. Vasiliev said that from 1989 to 1991, "the miners called for privatization and the possibility to make a profit by selling coal." He says that now, "the miners in the same regions are calling for a return to government control of the industry."