Miners in Russian Far East grow restless


By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — In the coal-mining centre of Partizansk in the Maritime District of Russia's Far East, most miners go to work with nothing more than bread and sugar in their lunch boxes. From time to time, miners collapse on the job as a result of hunger. Most of the workers in the district's coal industry have received little or no pay since April.

This was the situation described to journalists in mid-July by Vasily Petrichenko, the head of the Partizansk labour action committee. The wage pay-out in April was the first many local miners had received since December, and was achieved only at the expense of a bitter 10-day strike.

Now, the industrial temperature in the Maritime District is rising again. Government strategists are looking anxiously toward this volatile region, fearful that labour protests there could trigger a wave of mass strikes during the autumn, as campaigning intensifies for the December parliamentary elections.

The tempo of labour struggles in the coal towns of the Far East during the past few years has followed a seasonal rhythm. Summer is usually among the quietest periods, as miners turn to a semi-peasant existence, growing potatoes, cultivating and preserving green vegetables and gathering berries and mushrooms in nearby forests. The peak of militancy arrives in late winter and spring, as the stored food supplies are exhausted, and the payment of wages becomes critical if workers and their families are to survive.

But this year, the Maritime District has been caught in an intensified cycle of debt non-payments from which the federal government has shown little inclination to release it. As a result, industrial militancy in the coal settlements is on the boil even now, amid the distractions of summer. "The situation is as intense there as it was last spring", said a leading coal expert at the Fuel and Energy Ministry interviewed by the English-language Moscow Tribune.

Coal miners are not the only workers in the Maritime District whose wages go unpaid for long periods. But it is not surprising that the miners have hit back hardest against the authorities. In Soviet times, the hardships of miners' lives — 60% of the people of Partizansk still live in barracks-type dwellings rather than individual apartments — were partly compensated by some of the highest wages in the country. Now, the buying power of miners' wages is a fraction of what it was, even when these wages are paid.

Coal miners in the Maritime District have also had to watch their potentially profitable industry decay due to lack of investment. Since 1987 output in the mines has fallen by almost half. From having a thriving export trade with Japan, the district's coal industry has declined to the point where coal is having to be freighted in, at heavy cost, from other regions of Russia.

Most of the coal mined in the Maritime District is used for electricity generation, accounting for some 90% of local electrical output. But the regional electricity generating firm, Dalenergo, argues that it cannot meet its bills for coal because of non-payment by its own customers. The major electricity consumers in the Russian Far East include large defence enterprises; these are among the main victims of the government's policy of limiting the budget deficit by delaying payment for delivered production.

Rather than injecting funds to break the chain of non-payments, the federal government has compounded the problem by repeatedly stalling on the payment of promised subsidies, to both the coal and electricity industries.

But not all the problems have their source in Moscow. Much of the federal money that is supposed to help support the energy sector in the Maritime District has to pass through the administration in the district centre, Vladivostok. There, the local governing apparatus has a reputation as one of the most corrupt in Russia.

Even if funds reach the bank accounts of the coal and electricity firms, there are no guarantees that workers will be paid. Managers of these firms are notorious for hanging on to state credits and subsidies and using them to finance an almost unbelievable variety of commercial dealings.

Late in 1994, Moscow News reported in April, Dalenergo received 100 billion roubles from the finance ministry — and promptly lent 25 billion roubles of the sum to a joint venture which used the money to buy 14,000 tons of chicken legs.

Last spring, the Maritime District department of the federal treasury and the local prosecutor's office conducted an audit to discover the fate of budget funds that had been directed to Primorskugol, the state-owned coal firm that is a major shareholder in most of the mines of the district. The audit concluded that nearly 18 billion roubles (about US$4 million) that had been allotted for solving miners' social welfare problems had been used to grant interest-free loans to leading personnel, to pay for their children to attend private schools in Russia and abroad, and as start-up capital for new private companies.

Late in March, miners' anger reached flashpoint. In one of the Partizansk mines, 27 miners refused to surface, and began a hunger strike. On April 6, a near-general stoppage of the district's coal sector began. The strike ended only on April 17, after the federal government had advanced money to allow workers to be paid their wages for the previous four months.

Since April, promises by the federal and district authorities to ensure regular funding for the Maritime District coal industry have proven largely worthless. The Moscow daily Segodnya reported on July 11 that in the previous two months, Dalenergo had not paid its coal suppliers a single rouble; the electricity generating firm explained this lapse by pleading that instead of a promised 250 billion roubles (US$55 million) in government subsidies, it had received only 90 billion.

One of the main government responses to the problems of the Maritime District coal miners has been to draw up a program of mine closures. The authorities have accepted the need to restore the region's self-sufficiency in coal supplies; the closure of eight mines is supposed to be offset by the development of nine new open pits. But will the investment capital needed for these pits make it past the budget-cutters in Moscow and the embezzlers in Vladivostok?