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Russia: Coal Miners Struggle Under Weight Of Closures

Kemerovo, 21 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Unlike most coal miners in Russia's Kemerovo region, Alexander Novikov finally got paid. But he also just lost his job.

The 39-year old miner shook his head as he stood in line at the unemployment office in Beryozovsky, a struggling Siberian mining community about 3,000 kilometers from Moscow. "When the mine closes down, we get paid, but if the mine is working we don't get anything," he says.

Until February, Novikov hadn't been paid his measly 780 ruble ($130) monthly salary for a year and a half. He said he had scraped by with the help of friends and relatives and ate vegetables that he and his wife grew in their garden.

Now, however, he finally has some money in his pocket. The government paid him his back wages and three months of severance pay as part of plans to shut down Biryulinskaya, the mine where he toiled underground for 14 years. But he holds out little hope of finding a new job any time soon. To make matters worse, unemployment benefits in Beryozovsky haven't been paid in nine months.

Novikov is one of at least 50,000 workers that will be laid off this year as a result of the government's ambitious coal restructuring program, funded and designed by the World Bank. The government is planning to shut down 86 out of 200 mines this year and initiate lay-offs at dozens of other mines slated for closure.

But critics say the program is doing little to help depressed mining communities like Beryozovsky recover in the wake of the closures. Very few laid-off miners have been able to find new jobs.

Alexander Ortunas, a mechanic who has worked at the Biryulinskaya mine for nearly 20 years, said: "This is a dying city." The only source of employment for Beryozovsky's 57,000 inhabitants is a handful of coal mines which are in the process of closing down or downsizing to cut costs.

Beryozovsky is not alone. Across the Kuzbass, the heart of Russia's coal industry, mines are being shut down. Miners who continue to work haven't been paid wages for nine months, sometimes longer. Wage arrears to miners across Russia total a whopping 3.2 billion rubles ($520 million) while overall debts to the coal industry have reached 10 billion rubles. At the Kuznetskaya mine in the Kuzbass, desperate miners who had not been paid in two years took the mine's director hostage in January.

Two major accidents at mines in the Kuzbass and Russia's Far North in recent months have highlighted the coal industry's financial troubles, as unpaid workers cut corners and aging machinery malfunctions. Last year, 277 miners were killed, compared with 172 in 1996.

The signs of desperation can be seen at the Dimitrova mine outside the Siberian city of Novokuznetsk. The mine has been in the process of closing since 1995, when it stopped producing coal and began laying off some 2,500 workers. The dilapidated buildings of the mine complex still stand, and nothing has been done to clean up the area.

Many of the miners who were laid off live nearby in ramshackle wooden huts separated by muddy paths blackened by coal. The houses have no running water or heating and people are loosing patience.

Nikolai Suyazov, a hardened 63 year-old miner who worked all his life underground at Dimitrova, had few kind words for Yeltsin as he navigated through the mud. As he put it: "Yeltsin has driven us into poverty. He has brought the country to a dead-end and he doesn't have a clue as to how to get us out of it."

Like all the workers at Dimitrova, he received three months' severance pay when he was laid off in 1995. But he said he can't afford to live on his monthly pension, worth just 500 rubles.

His daughter, 36 year-old Nadezhda Zyapkina, helps him get by, sharing the salary she earns as a secretary at a local coal institute. But she and her husband are having a hard time making ends meet. He is owned 14,000 rubles in back wages from working in bankrupt mines in the area.