Russian Miners Protest Despite Wage Promise

MOSCOW -- (Reuters) Hundreds of desperate coal miners in and around Russia's Arctic city of Vorkuta blocked a major railway on Saturday for a fourth successive day, despite government promises to pay their wage arrears.

The head of local miners' trade union, quoted by Interfax news agency, said his members did not trust "promises on paper" and wanted hard cash.

"The miners are not planning to stop the protest action and are still blocking the Moscow-Vorkuta railway. There hasn't been any real money and there still isn't," said Kamo Alaverdyan.

About 100 miners in the area have been on hunger strike since mid-week. "When I took leave last September it was the last time I was paid," one hunger-striking miner in the town of Inta told Russian Public Television.

Hundreds of miners in other parts of Russia backed their Vorkuta colleagues on Friday and Saturday by blocking major railways or staging strikes to protest at chronic delays in paying wages.

Many also demanded the resignation of President Boris Yeltsin and his government and said the state must take back control of privatized pits.

Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko said more money had been found to help to pay the wage arrears. The cash should come from savings made from limits on electricity consumption, from alcohol production and from privatization, he said.

"Where the situation is so critical that people are not getting their wages and have no means to survive, we will unlock state reserves to provide food and other necessities," he said.

Trade union leaders earlier held talks in Moscow with Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who has special responsibility for the energy sector.

Nemtsov, quoted by Russian news agencies, said afterwards that the government had worked out a schedule of financial support for the miners and he promised that the first payments would be made as soon as Monday or Tuesday.

"The situation in the coal mining industry is the hardest and problems there are the most difficult," Nemtsov said, noting that the government itself had already paid what it owed to the miners.

Many mining companies say they cannot pay workers because of a financial crisis in which mines are, for example, owed huge amounts for coal deliveries they have already made.

Miners insist that the state, which holds big stakes in most of the coal mining companies, is responsible for the problem and should take care of all unpaid wages.

Itar-Tass news agency quoted Kiriyenko as saying he would convene a meeting of governors from the coal-producing regions in the near future in a further attempt to tackle the crisis.

Kiriyenko persuaded the communist-led lower house of parliament, the State Duma, on Friday to accept big cuts in parliamentary and government red tape to help to raise cash for the miners.

He said this would save over 500 million rubles ($83 million) and was just one of several "unorthodox decisions" needed to pay off 3.7 billion rubles ($583 million) in wage arrears in the mines.

Yeltsin sacked the entire cabinet of veteran prime minister Victor Chernomyrdin on March 23 partly because of its failure to solve the wages problem. ( (c) 1998 Reuters)