FOCUS-Russian coal miners protest over wage delays

15 May 1998
Web posted at: 20:37 CEST, Paris time (18:37 GMT)

MOSCOW, May 15 (Reuters) - Angry Russian coal miners who blocked the trans-Siberian railway and held their bosses hostage in the Arctic won a reaction in Moscow on Friday when parliament backed a government bill to free some cash for overdue wages.

Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, in office for just a few weeks, was quick to present it as evidence that his new government was finally getting to grips with a problem that has blighted Russia's transition to a market economy for years.

But Communist opposition critics, aware the novice premier had wrong-footed them in a public relations battle, warned the strikers that the bureaucratic cost-savings offered by Kiriyenko were mere paper economies that would not fill their pay packets.

Hundreds of desperate miners in various parts of the country stopped work, staged hunger strikes and blocked railway lines on Friday to protest at chronic delays in paying wages. Many were also demanding the state take back pits from privatised firms.

Several pit managers in the snowbound Arctic city of Vorkuta and the local mayor spent a third day barricaded in their offices by miners seeking up to three months back-pay. At Inta, southeast of Vorkuta, hundreds of miners camped out in the snow blocking the rail line to Moscow. Over 100 others were on hunger strike.

At Anzhero-Sudzhensk, in the Kuzbass coal field of southern Siberia, hundreds more were joined by their families and unpaid doctors and teachers, staging a sit-in on the tracks that closed the trans-Siberian railway, the world's longest line.

The incidents were the latest in years of sporadic protests against chronic wage arrears, none of which have brought much sign of relief despite constant promises from Moscow.

President Boris Yeltsin cited the failure to solve the wages problem when he sacked Viktor Chernomyrdin and named a younger cabinet under Kiriyenko, a 35-year-old former provincial banker.

The Communist-led State Duma lower house of parliament only grudgingly endorsed Kiriyenko and on Friday, with Yeltsin away at the Group of Eight summit, it invited the novice premier to the chamber at short notice to offer a solution for the miners.

Such calls were routinely ignored by Chernomyrdin. But Kiriyenko chose to call parliament's bluff, turning up in person and throwing back at the deputies a hair-shirt solution under which the deputies and ministers would cut their own administrative expenses by a quarter in order to find the cash for an immediate payment to the stricken industry.

"We've all got to tighten our belts, make fewer foreign trips and economise on official cars. We are ready to cut part of the government apparatus and call on you to follow suit," a combative Kiriyenko told the chamber.

Cautioning that this stop-gap was no substitute for the government's longer-term strategy, Kiriyenko said the measures would save over 500 million roubles ($83 million) and was just one of several "unorthodox decisions" needed to pay off 3.7 billion roubles ($583 million) in wage arrears in the mines.

Admitting they could hardly refuse, the Duma voted by 371 to two at a first reading. The second and third are on Wednesday.

But the Communist deputy chairman of the budget committee, Yuri Voronin, warned his colleagues that a big shortfall in tax revenue this year meant the money saved was not there anyway.

And the deputy leader of the coal miners' union, Ivan Makhnachuk, cautioned against robbing Peter in the government apparatus to pay Paul down the coal mine. "They shouldn't be setting us off against each other," he told NTV television.

"We need to sit down at the negotiating table and then we'll see. We don't need a new revolution," he added, warning patience among the miners, a once-potent force who backed Yeltsin in his struggle against Soviet communism, was wearing very thin.

"They are ready for a widespread protests...The explosion could be very serious," Makhnachuk said.

rotests...The explosion could be very serious," Makhnachuk said.

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