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Coal Strikes Sweep Russia, Ukraine

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 well.

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 next week.

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.