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Russia: Miners Protest Work Conditions, Stage Demonstration In Moscow

Miners from coal-rich regions around Russia are staging a small protest in Moscow this week to complain that conditions for the average worker are becoming worse under President Vladimir Putin. Union representatives are demanding that the government pay more attention to their ailing sector, but analysts say the demonstration is not likely to prompt a significant official response.

Moscow, 14 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It is a scene reminiscent of 1998, when thousands of Russian miners staged a series of highly publicized protests across the country. Coal miners have gathered in Moscow this week, banging their helmets on the pavement to protest low wages, late pension payments, poor working conditions, and the government's general negligence of the sector.

But these are not the pickets of four years ago, which gave the government serious headaches. Barely 50 protesters turned out in front of central Moscow's Energy Ministry this week, and observers say their actions will do nothing to help the country's miners.

The protest was spearheaded by the Russian Independent Coal Miners' Union, which unites more than 60,000 workers. Union representatives say the government has turned its back on workers who have sacrificed their health for the good of the country.

Viktor Semenov heads the independent miners' union of the northern Komi Republic, which is taking part in the demonstrations. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin knows about the workers' sorry state of affairs, but has failed to act. "We're concerned about the energy balance in Russia and very worried about the lives of miners themselves. The government is undertaking measures to destroy coal miners in Russia. Coal miners are simply being killed off. No measures are being undertaken to improve and restructure Russia's coal-mining sector. The social situation is only getting worse, as are miners' labor conditions. That's why we are now announcing and demanding that the president meet labor-organization representatives who are now in Moscow to finally sound out the president's attitude to Russia's miners," Semenov said.

The miners are demanding that the government raise wages from an average 3,000 rubles a month ($100) to a minimum of 5,000 rubles a month. They also want lower railroad tariffs for coal, a limit on imports, and the enactment of other measures to protect the industry.

Union representatives held negotiations on 12 August with Deputy Energy Minister Leonid Tropko but made no headway. Andrei Dudnikov, a member of the independent Chelyabinsk coal miners' union, blames the government. "There were essentially no results. The government doesn't decide anything. Everything is decided on the local level. That's what they say. It appears they're ready to create all the conditions for us, but there's no faith that will happen," Dudnikov said.

The Energy Ministry posted a press release on its website saying it has in the past spoken out in favor of increased use of coal in generating electric power and that reform of the coal sector was tied to wide-ranging legislative reform initiated by the president. It did not, however, address the miners' complaints about poor working conditions.

Experts say this week's protest will likely fall on deaf ears. Yurii Korgunyuk, an analyst with the INDEM research group, said even the much larger protests of 1998 had little effect and were cut short only by the country's ruinous economic crisis in August of that year. He said the government will simply pay no attention this time around. "Even in those conditions -- in August 1998 -- the miners' picket in itself didn't do anything for anyone, especially for the miners. In today's conditions, it's pointless," Korgunyuk said.

Komi union leader Semenov, meanwhile, said the protest has aims larger than simply bolstering the mining sector. "We're saying that the announcements made by Russia's government and president -- that Russians' lives have improved -- are total lies. We're especially telling foreign media to bring the world's attention to the fact that Russia is full of complete lies. What's going on is the consistent worsening of average workers' lives in Russia. And we want to underscore that one more time with our actions," Semenov said.

The miners will continue their protest until 16 August, moving on today to picket the government White House, the center of the protests four years ago.