BY LAURA GARZA
A two-day strike of almost half a million miners in Russia highlighted the deepening economic and political crisis there and the growing numbers of workers facing depression conditions. One million Ukrainian miners joined the strike, bringing the total number of miners out across the two nations to more than a million, to demand payment of hundreds of millions of dollars owed to them in back wages. At the same time the Russian government of Boris Yeltsin is being pushed to deepen its austerity measures of cutbacks, layoffs, and privatizations in order to qualify for more loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
In the week before the strike Yeltsin signed a decree to pay $127 million owed in back wages to the miners. But the miners, who said $200 million is owed, walked out on February 1 anyway, saying they had yet to see any of the money promised.
Other protests across Russia
Workers and pensioners throughout the country are facing a similar plight. The miners' action occurred during a three- day nationwide strike of teachers, who were also demanding back pay. In the town of Vorkuta a crowd of 5,000 rallied in the main square, including miners, teachers, rail workers, and doctors, with signs saying, "Where is our money?" Workers at the ZIL truck factory, who have not been paid since October, announced plans for a strike to begin the next week.
Other protests across Russia
The striking miners were also demanding state funding for the coal industry to help guarantee they would continue to be paid. To end the stoppage the government approved a plan including $2.2 billion in state funds to the coal industry, and the miners agreed to return to work. Ivan Mokhnachuk, deputy head of the Union of Coal Industry workers, said the strike would resume on March 1 if the government doesn't keep its promises.
Those pushing to deepen the austerity measures, which have included closing 36 mines in recent years, were unhappy with the government's response. "After the miners get this money, everybody else will say, `Why don't we go on strike to get what we want?' " complained Sergei Markov, an analyst for the Carnegie Foundation in Moscow.
In Ukraine, where the strikes continued, miners are owed some $367 million. Ukranian prime minister Yevgeny Marchuk said people should have swallowed the "bitter medicine" of the cuts in funding to the coal industry long ago. "These strikes are serious," moaned the head of the department for economic reforms of the Economics Ministry, Vyacheslav Batvin. "They're putting the brakes on reforms," he said.
Coal is a major source of energy and heat in Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainian miners make between $50 and $75 monthly. In Russia miners can earn more than $200 a month, a higher wage than many workers.
Meanwhile, the would-be capitalist politicians in Moscow are feeling more heat from the World Bank and IMF representatives to push ahead with measures that are causing widespread social devastation. The World Bank has calculated that the number of pits that it considers viable would be mean closing one-third of operating mines and more than half of Russia's 900,000 miners would lose jobs.
The IMF is currently in negotiations with the Russian government over the terms of a pending $9 billion loan. Cutting back on social spending in the government's budget is a condition of continuing to receive money.
To appease growing social unrest Yeltsin has promised to raise the minimum wage, supplementary pensions, and stipends to students. Such measures are not in the IMF's plans. A January 31 New York Times article noted the "worries" of the imperialist lending institutions that "Mr. Yeltsin's budget- busting promises - if he keeps them - could undermine the country's market reforms." The article also noted, "IMF negotiators are no longer just overseeing Russia's inflation- fighting efforts. They are also discussing major institutional reforms over the next three years."
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