Strikes by unpaid workers are among the most dramatic symptoms of Russia’s economic disease. Those symptoms flared again last week. In the Kuzbass district, coal miners who have not been paid for six months blocked the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Up north, unpaid miners blocked the Vorkuta-Moscow railway, stranding passengers in ten-below weather. In Partizansk near the Sea of Japan, twelve unpaid miners went on a hunger strike and took the mine boss hostage.
In the past, job actions like these have been met with empty promises. Not this time. This time the federal government denied responsibility, blaming instead consumers who have failed to pay their bills to suppliers. The miners, once among President Boris Yeltsin’s biggest supporters, are calling for his resignation.
The miners’ strikes are no political crisis, but the anger and sense of betrayal they reveal are the emotional fuel for the campaign of General Aleksandr Lebed, who would like to be Russia’s next president. General Lebed went before the voters on Sunday in the Siberian province (krai) of Krasnoyarsk, where he challenged the popular, pro-Yeltsin incumbent, Governor Valery Zubov. Bad weather delayed reporting of results, which were not available as this edition went to press
Paying wages owed was of course an issue in Krasnoyarsk, as it is everywhere. Diverging from the Kremlin line, Governor Zubov blamed the federal government for the light pay envelopes. In the final days of the campaign, he threatened to withhold taxes due to the federal government until the arrears are made up.
The governor also promised to bring Communists into a provincial “government of popular trust,” and national Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov backed Zubov by calling Lebed “a threat to all Russia.”
Lebed is clearly a threat to the Communists. He appeals to their base–unpaid workers, impoverished farmers, angry servicemen, veterans, and pensioners–with the energy and freshness that the Communists lack, and without the history of failure and collapse that they cannot escape. He is also a threat to the pro-government forces–so much so that some observers, including human-rights activist Yelena Bonner, believe the government will try to annul the election if Lebed wins.