Russian miners promise a 'hot autumn'

Wednesday, August 14, 1996

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — Coal miners are pressing ahead in a battle to force the government and coal companies to hand over wages that have gone unpaid from as far back as February. During the first week of August, more than 50,000 workers in two main mining areas were on strike, and miners in several more coal regions were in a state of "pre-strike alert".

At an August 6 leadership meeting of Russia's main miners' organisation, the Russian Independent Union of Coal Industry Workers, a call was issued for a complete industry shutdown from August 26 if the miners' demands were not met.

In the mines of the Maritime District in Russia's far east, where the strike wave began with spontaneous walkouts in mid-July, workers were returning to the job on August 6 after receiving their pay for March, along with promises that the remaining arrears would be paid during the coming weeks. Miners' leaders said the strike would be resumed if the payments were not made on schedule.

Related struggles by power workers in the far east were also put on hold as long-delayed wages began to be handed over. The main weapon in the power workers' protests has been mass hunger strikes.

In Rostov province in southern Russia, a reported 40,000 coal workers remained on strike on August 6, protesting at the failure by the local coal enterprise to pay wages for as much as four months. Stoppages were also under way at individual mines in the Chelyabinsk coalfield in the Urals, at Tula near Moscow and at Vorkuta in the far north of European Russia. At Vorkuta, the local union branch decided to begin an indefinite strike of all coal enterprises in the region from August 8.

New strategy?

In past years, the government has responded to miners' strikes by paying wage arrears. Then, when work has resumed and the militancy has subsided, pay-outs in the semi-privatised coal industry have ceased and arrears have again been allowed to build up.

The money the government has been handing out recently has been more like a pain-killer than a cure, Ruben Badalov, deputy chairperson of the coal workers' union, was quoted as saying on August 5. "It will not solve the problem, and by the end of the year, the miners will not be paid again."

Suspicions are increasing, however, that the government this autumn will break from its past tactics. Union officials calculate the total debts to the coal industry at the equivalent of US$380 million, largely from state-owned institutions. At a time when the government is trying to restrict its outlays following President Boris Yeltsin's pre-election spending spree, the sums needed to satisfy the miners may be greater than the authorities are prepared to part with.

The prospect cannot be excluded that the government this time will try to deliver a knockout blow to the miners, smashing their organisations and "restructuring" the industry so that only the most profitable and strategically important pits are retained.

The first phase of the miners' current campaign reached its peak at the end of July, when as many as 13,000 coal industry workers were on strike in the mines and open pits of the Maritime District. Another notable struggle in late July involved 7000 coal workers on strike in the huge open pits at Neryungri in eastern Siberia.

In Partizansk, one of the main centres of the Maritime District coal industry, around half of the miners and their families live not in apartments but in dilapidated barracks. Until August 5, few of the coal workers in the district had received any money wages for the past five months; their only semi-regular pay had been in the form of bartered foodstuffs, including canned goods with "use by" dates as far back as 1992.

Shifting blame

As the strikes spread, Yeltsin's officials began a vigorous effort to deny responsibility for the coal workers' plight. Blame ought not to be attached to the federal authorities, they argued, because the financial problems of the coal industry were above all due to non-payment by privatised coal customers.

The spotlight was also turned on local administrations, above all the one headed by Maritime District Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko. All the federal budget funds promised for the Maritime District coal industry had in fact been signed over to the district authorities, Kremlin sources claimed.

A sum of 60 billion roubles, about US$11.5 million, had been sent in February as a subsidy to cover coal workers' wages. Only about 20 billion roubles of this sum found its way into miners' pockets. What had Nazdratenko and his officials done with the rest?

The Maritime District and its capital, Vladivostok, are reputedly among the most mafia-ridden areas of Russia.

A key aspect of the financial difficulties in the Maritime District is the failure by the electricity generating enterprise Dalenergo to meet its bills for coal supplies. Dalenergo in turn is unable to collect debts from defaulting customers, many of them military bases or other "budget area" institutions. The bulk of the debts to Dalenergo, however, are owed by private firms engaged in reselling electrical energy. These firms were set up with active participation from Nazdratenko's officials.

There are strong suspicions that local administrative chiefs have skimmed the income from power sales, while leaving both power workers and coal industry employees to starve. Meanwhile, Nazdratenko has been able to keep the district's finances afloat with the help of subsidies from Moscow.

In bidding for these funds, Nazdratenko has made vigorous use of the miners' militancy. During the first week of August, he was giving outspoken support to the striking miners, and demanding that Moscow sign over money to allow their claims to be met.

Split between friends

Until recently, the Yeltsin administration has put up with Nazdratenko for several reasons. First, the governor for years possessed a network of high-placed protectors within the presidential apparatus. A second, more important, reason is that when it has really counted, Nazdratenko has given Yeltsin unqualified support.

In the recent presidential elections, the local administrative apparatus in the Maritime District campaigned vigorously on Yeltsin's behalf. At this time, the district authorities kept the miners under intense pressure to stay on the job, threatening them with prosecution if they held "political" strikes.

Now Yeltsin has much less need of Nazdratenko, and some of his most important protectors lost their jobs when Yeltsin purged his apparatus during the election period. Yeltsin on August 2 announced that he had ordered an inquiry into the actions both of Maritime District coal industry officials, and of Nazdratenko's administration.

Meanwhile, the federal government has by no means been innocent as the total sum of wage debts has mounted. Late payment of wages in the "budget sector" is extremely widespread. Millions of other workers go unpaid because the central government has a tacit policy of failing to pay debts to privatised enterprises on time.

Collaborating with Yeltsin in forcing a clean-up of the local administration could bring significant gains for the Maritime District miners. Nevertheless, the miners are showing a marked wariness of relying on one ruling faction against another. For one thing, they have discovered that a large portion of the funds sent from Moscow to pay their wages was diverted from money assigned for capital construction in the coal industry and for welfare payments.