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Russia: Economic Crisis Saps Workers' Zeal For Protests

Moscow, 21 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Earlier this month, Russian trade unions organized demonstrations across the country to protest the government's economic reforms and demand payment of back wages. But turnout was low, and the actions stopped short of nationwide strikes.

Wage arrears in Russia total a whopping 60 billion rubles ($10 billion) and millions of workers often go for a year or longer without getting paid. So why haven't more people taken to the streets?

Trade union leaders say Russia's depressed economy has depleted workers' energy for mass protests. Coal miners, for instance, are owed a massive 3.2 billion rubles ($530 million) in back wages, but they go to work every day, fearing strikes will only make matters worse.

Mikhail Lavrov, head of the Independent Miners' Union (NPG) in the Siberian coal mining region of Kuzbass, says strikes make little sense in the current economic climate. As he puts it: "If we strike, the mine will only close faster."

With dozens of mines slated for closure this year, Lavrov, a 37 year-old former miner, faces an uphill battle to defend workers' rights. He spends most of his time trying to hold on to the jobs that do exist in a depressed economy. In what seems like a strange task for a trade union leader, Lavrov found himself earlier this month battling with the regional electricity company, which had switched off the power at a local mine over unpaid bills.

He says: "If the mine can't operate, workers can't paid." The situation is a far cry from 1989 and 1991, when miners staged massive strikes which helped propel President Boris Yeltsin to power. Now, however, many workers who went on strike then say they are disillusioned.

As Alexander Novikov, a 39 year-old unemployed miner, put it: "I went on strike in 1989, but what came of it? Yeltsin promised a lot but didn't deliver."

Many observers are quick to blame the trade unions for the current malaise, saying they are weak and have been compromised by years of cooperation with the communist party. The Independent Miners Union, which was born out of the strike committees of 1989, is indeed weak, with overall membership declining partly because of the inability of miners to pay monthly dues.

The nationwide protests earlier this month were spearheaded by the communist party and the official trade unions, which were once allied with the Soviet authorities. Holding bright red banners calling for a "strengthening of the nation," about 5,000 protesters gathered on the main square in the Siberian city of Novokuznetsk to demand changes to economic reforms and Yeltsin's resignation. But many stayed away because they feared being co-opted into communist party political games.

Many workers have gone on strike over the past seven years of reforms, but they have mostly been isolated incidents. The government has realized that it can adhere to tough anti-inflationary policies, holding back on paying out wages without evoking worker uprisings. When strikes do mount, such as last year, the government tends to quickly dispatch some quick cash to quell protests. But the problem of wage arrears reappears in a few months.

The strikes often have an adverse impact on local budgets. Yuri Dashkov, a former miner from the Far North region of Vorkuta, says scattered strikes at mines last year over unpaid wages denied the cash-strapped local budget crucial tax revenues, causing delays in wages to public sector workers. As he put it: "It's a vicious circle."