Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 99

In his weekly radio address this morning, Russian President Boris Yeltsin appealed to Russia’s striking coal miners to call off their blockade of Russia’s railways. He said the week-long protests had gone beyond “reasonable bounds” and were causing the country immense economic harm. He urged miners not to let themselves be manipulated by hotheads. The government, he said, was doing all it could to improve the situation, but change would not come overnight. (BBC, May 22) The strikes took a new turn yesterday when union leaders declared the start of a nationwide protest action. Until now, the strikes had been a chain of wildcat protests. But yesterday Ivan Mokhnachuk, Deputy Chairman of the Russian Coal Miners’ Union, said the union was halting coal deliveries throughout the country until all the miners’ demands were satisfied, political demands included. “We don’t just need our wages, we need President Yeltsin out,” Mokhnachuk was quoted as saying. He called on workers in other sectors of the economy to support the miners. (ORT, RTR, May 21)

The labor unrest comes at a bad moment for Russia’s new government, which has been working hard to shore up the beleaguered ruble on international financial markets. Both Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko and his first deputy, Boris Nemtsov, insisted that that the government would not use force against the miners. At the same time, Nemtsov insisted that the government “would not give in to blackmail from the miners.” (Itar-Tass, May 20) Kirienko told a cabinet meeting yesterday that he had found 526 million rubles ($84 million) to help pay the miners. This, however, is a fraction of the 3.7 billion rubles ($600 million) in back pay that the miners say they are owed, and Kirienko said he would not create new debts in order to meet the miners’ demands. “We cannot take money from one place to put out a temporary fire in another place,” he said, referring to other sectors where workers face wage arrears. (Reuters, May 21)

Most of Russia’s coal mines have been privatized. The wage arrears plaguing the industry are therefore not strictly the government’s responsibility. It is widely acknowledged, however, that a large part of the problem lies in the regional governments. These, desperate to keep key manufacturing plants in operation and to avoid layoffs and unemployment on their territory, have put pressure on electricity plants not to cut off supplies to factories that do not pay their bills. As a result, power stations have had no money to pay the coal producers.