Coal miners, working without pay for three, four, five, or even six months, have had enough. Strikes that began in the Kuzbass in western Siberia are spreading. Miners have blocked the Trans-Siberian and other critical rail links and are calling on workers in other sectors to support their cause. The strike has a political edge: a union official says the miners want not just their wages–$600 million, they claim–but Yeltsin’s resignation too. While new Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko says there will be no resort to force, Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov (who met with striking miners in Siberia) says the government won’t give in to blackmail. Kirienko promised–yet again!–that back wages will be paid in full, but he says the government has only $84 million available and won’t take on new debt to pay more.
The federal government is not to blame for this crisis, at least not directly. Most of the mines have been privatized, and the miners, for the most part, are not federal employees. Regional governments are more at fault. To protect employment, they lean on local electric utilities (mostly owned by UES, see above) to keep supplying power to unprofitable and sometimes corrupt local enterprises. When the utilities go unpaid, they fall behind in their payments to the coal suppliers, who stiff their miners. The debt the utilities owe to the coal companies is said to be around $560 million, not far off the miners’ claims.
The strikes have given the Communist-led opposition in the Duma a political opening. The opposition claims to have collected the support of enough Duma deputies to launch impeachment proceedings against President Yeltsin. Under the constitution impeachment is so difficult as to be impossible (it takes two thirds of the Duma to indict, majorities of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court to confirm the indictment, and two thirds of the parliament’s upper house to convict). But the constitution also provides that the Duma may not be dismissed while impeachment charges are pending. It was the threat of dismissal that rendered the Duma impotent in last month’s struggle over the confirmation of Prime Minister Kirienko. If that threat is neutralized, the Communists could challenge the president and his government much more effectively across the whole range of issues. That also has to scare the markets.
* Group therapy: Boris Yeltsin joined the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States as the Group of Seven held its first summit as the Group of Eight. After his bilateral meeting with President Yeltsin, President Bill Clinton and his top advisers told the press that Russia was unambiguously committed to stopping the flow of missile technology to Iran. Buoyed by that pledge and by the European Union’s promise to tighten controls on transfer to Iran of technology that has a military purpose, President Clinton exercised a national-interest waiver to avoid imposing sanctions on Russian and French companies that are investing in natural-gas production in Iran…. Russia’s Minister of Atomic Energy, meanwhile, joined with his Iranian counterpart in announcing plans to expand nuclear cooperation beyond the $850 million reactor project in Bushehr, to which Russia is already committed. Construction of a research reactor in Tehran is a likely follow-on.
* False start: Leaders of the Communist and ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic parties told the press that closed-door hearings in the Duma on the START II treaty, set to begin June 9, would be postponed to the fall. But two days later, after a meeting with President Yeltsin, parliamentary leaders apparently agreed to keep the START II debate on schedule. The 1993 START II treaty would cut the number of nuclear warheads from around 7,000 to around 3,500 on each side. The United States ratified the treaty last year.