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Poland: Russian Coal Appeals To A Coal-Rich Country

Warsaw, 8 January 1997 (RFE/RL) -- There's a saying in Poland that "one does not carry wood into the forest." But this is exactly what some Polish companies are doing by ordering supplies of cheap coal from Russia.

Poland used to be the biggest coal provider for the Soviet Union. Over decades its massive coal production, centered on the southwestern Silesia region, was transported eastwards. But now a paradox has developed in that Russian coal is being imported into Poland as an economical alternative to the local product.

An RFE/RL correspondent in Warsaw reports that last year Russian coal was shipped all the way from Siberia by train to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave on the Polish border, then onward by boat to the Polish Baltic port of Gdynia, near Gdansk.

Although the shipments so far are on a small scale -- some 14,000 tons were delivered to Gdynia last year -- the Russian coal has found a ready market. Our correspondent says consumers big and small have snapped up the bargain coal, from the heating plant in Grudziadz and the "Police" chemical company in Szczecin, to sugar refineries and individuals who drive from other regions of the country to collect truckloads.

The Warsaw-based company contracting for the deliveries, Kolsped, is 60 percent owned by the Polish state railways (PKP). A Kolsped representative in Gdynia told our correspondent that the motive for choosing Russian coal instead of supporting the Polish miners is economic. It's simply cheaper.

Kolsped also cooperates with an Elblag-based company called Halex, which imports more Russian coal through Elblag from Kaliningrad using its own barges.

Polish miners are naturally disturbed by the phenomenon of their product being passed over in favor of a cheap alternative. "No wonder that the Russian state companies can sell coal to Poland for little money," muttered a member of the Solidarity miners' union. "They don't pay their miners, that's why."

The question of miners' pay is a delicate one in a number of transition states. Last year there was controversy when Poles were selling coal to Ukraine at a time when miners in Ukraine were on strike for more pay. The Ukrainian workers eventually blocked deliveries at the Medyka dry port border crossing.

One of the basic problems in the economic equation is of course, the need to make Polish coal production more efficient. Silesia is a blackened and polluted region of old coal pits working with worn equipment and outdated methods. Successive Polish governments have failed to come to grips with the necessary large-scale modernisation in the region.

The present leftist government of Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz has spoken in recent months of tackling Silesia's chronic problems, but our correspondent says the feeling is that the Warsaw officials in practise are likely to adopt the classic stance: namely to avoid hard decisions.

But the trade unions, both Solidarity and others, are pressing for action. Miners have urged the government to make available funds for modernization, and have asked for the mines' indebtedness to be forgiven, particularly in relation to unpaid social security contributions, which run into millions of zloty.

The government's reply to that has been that it wouldn't be fair to release the coal industry from its obligations to pay the social security dues when other enterprises continue to do so. Our correspondent reports that in fact many enterprises, both in Silesia and elsewhere, would be forced out of business if they had to make their social security and health benefit payments to the authorities regularly.