Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 98

Russian President Boris Yeltsin appealed for calm yesterday as strikes by coal miners spread across the country and strikers blocked a key section of the Trans-Siberian railway, effectively cutting the country in two. Hundreds of passenger and freight trains are stranded. Strikes spread to Buryatia in the east and Krasnoyarsk Krai in central Siberia in addition to those that have been going on for nearly a week in the main coalmining regions–the Far North, the North Caucasus and western Siberia.

The government, led by Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, has set up an emergency center to deal with the crisis. Meeting yesterday with trade union leaders, Kirienko insisted that all wage arrears would be paid and denied that the government was thinking of using force against the miners. He instructed deputy premiers Boris Nemtsov and Oleg Sysuev to cancel planned foreign visits and dispatched them instead to Rostov and Kemerovo Oblasts to talk to strikers. (Itar-Tass, ORT, RTR, May 20) Earlier in the day, Kemerovo Oblast Governor Aman Tuleev declared a state of emergency in his western Siberian region, heartland of the Kuzbass coal district, which has been cut off from the outside world by the rail blockade. Tuleev warned that some stranded trains were carrying chemicals and explosives.

Teachers and doctors, also hit by wage arrears, joined the strikes yesterday while, in St. Petersburg, ten thousand students marched to protest against the introduction of fees for higher education. (Itar-Tass, May 20) Nemtsov, assigned by Kirienko yesterday to head a special commission on the coal industry, told the upper house of the Russian parliament that the situation in the coal industry remained “very, very difficult.” He said coal-producing companies, most of which have been privatized, are owed about 3.4 billion rubles by commercial consumers. (RTR, May 20) The primary culprits are the swathe of uncompetitive and unprofitable manufacturing enterprises which fail to pay their electricity bills. The power stations pass the parcel by not paying their bills to coal and gas producers. Colluding in this are regional governments anxious to prop up plants that would otherwise go bust, with resultant losses of employment.

Nemtsov also blamed criminal activity for wage arrears, saying that “middlemen” were involved in 80 percent of the deals carried out by the Inta coal company in the Far North (where the strikes first started) and that huge amounts of money have been embezzled. He said further that tax police were being sent to the region to track down the middlemen accused of diverting the funds. (RTR, May 20) Earlier this week, Irina Khakamada, head of the State Committee for Supporting and Small and Medium-Sized Businesses, claimed that, prior to her appointment late last year, all of the funds allocated by the state to her committee were embezzled. She said the sum amounted to 300 million rubles. (RIA news agency, May 18)