Waiting for Boris to give me my salary

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The Independent Online
VLADIMIR STASYUK has done very little this week. He has sat in the sun, taken the occasional stroll, swotted flies, chatted with friends. Yet his time has been well spent. He and 250 other miners are camping outside the White House, the headquarters of the Russian government, in the middle of Moscow. For months the nation's coal miners have been protesting about late wages, dangerous conditions, and pit closures. They have blocked the Trans-Siberian railway and held directors hostage. But Mr Stasyuk and his colleagues decided to take their grievances to the heart of the capital itself. This month they set off by train from his home in Vorkuta, a gulag Arctic city built by Stalin in the 1930s, and arrived - three days later - to set up a makeshift encampment. As he and his work mates sat there all week, a knot of human indignation, they whiled away the hours by reading the papers.

MONDAY'S HEADLINE: "Moscow suffers record-breaking heat." Mr Stasyuk is not used to this. Temperatures have reached 35 degrees. When he and his work mates left Vorkuta it was only just above freezing. Now the miners are getting sunburnt. They have made hats out of newspapers, and are wearing home-made paper nose shields. It would be tempting to start drinking, but this protest is tightly disciplined. The men know one intoxicated outburst would provide an excuse to the police to move them out. Alcohol is banned. Instead Mr Stasyuk drinks kvas, a soft drink made from fermented rye bread. Gallons have been delivered by the capital's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. The mayor, who wants to be president and knows a voter when he sees one, has also sent along pies and salad. This does not impress Mr Stasyuk. He does not much like Moscow. Its wealth - the new Jeeps and Mercedes, the casinos and boutiques - serves as a brash and constant reminder that his wages have ended up in someone else's pockets. The contrast between the capital and his own monotonic city is vast.

TUESDAY'S HEADLINE: "Clearing up after English yobs riot at the World Cup". The paradox has not escaped Mr Stasyuk. Drunk and porcine youths from Britain, a rich and stable country, storm through the streets for no good reason, while the people of Russia - a vast nation on its knees - calmly struggle on. Yet few have more reason to riot than he. He only ended up in Vorkuta because of a nasty trick of history. In 1944, Stalin's secret police sent his father to the Arctic mines, along with every other male in his home town in Ukraine, after they were swept up in a mass arrest sparked by the murder of a Russian soldier. Mr Stasyuk had little choice but to spend his life literally hacking a livelihood for his wife and two daughters out of the ground, more than half a mile beneath the tundra. When he started work two decades ago, the miners had become the elite of the Soviet work force. The pay was good; his apartment was cheap, and he got 43 days' holiday a year. Now the industry has collapsed; seven of Vorkuta's 13 mines have closed. As conditions deteriorate, there have been accidents. In 27 January, miners died in a shaft explosion in Vorkuta.

WEDNESDAY'S HEADLINE: "Anatoly Chubais, chief architect of Russia's economic transition, returns to power". Mr Chubais, back in the government after being sacked in March, has long favoured a radical overhaul of Russia's coal mining industry, which is hugely subsidised. The government, helped by the World Bank, is closing about half Russia's 200 pits. Tens of thousands of jobs have already gone, and many, many more are for the chop. The Kremlin's message is the same as Margaret Thatcher's in the early 1980s: miners in loss-making pits must find something else to do. Mr Stasyuk, 44, has tried that. He has a passion for making plastic model American and British war planes. A few years back, he tried to sell them in the local market. It was a flop: his stall was no sooner laid out than the mafia pitched up, demanding a fee. "I wasn't in the business for very long," he said. He tells his story to illustrate a larger point: that it is far harder for Russian miners to find a new job than the government seems to realise.There's not much choice in the Arctic.

THURSDAY'S HEADLINE: "Russia Buys Time by raising $2.5bn on the international bond market". The government urgently needs the money to pay back short- term loans which it needs, in turn, to pay wages. Billions are flowing in and out of the coffers every week as the Kremlin carries on this desperate balancing act. Will any of this money ever reach Mr Stasyuk? A few days ago, a minister told him and his friends that their wages had been sent to Vorkuta. They checked. No one at home knew anything about it. Last month, Mr Stasyuk was actually paid. But his wage packet - 3000 roubles (pounds 300) -was for September 1997. He does not expect the situation to improve - "I see no prospects in life, in the economy or in the government" - but his gloom is briefly relieved by today's two small triumphs: a free lunch in a factory canteen and the arrival of dozens of banner-waving scientists, who join their protest.

SOME OF them have been marching to Moscow from outlying towns since Monday. Later, the leader of the Russian Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, also turns up. He gets a less ecstatic welcome. The Vorkuta miners have fallen out of love with Boris Yeltsin - once their hero - but they don't much like the Communists either. Their home is, after all, a the burial ground for Stalin's victims. Friday's headline: "Miners break into Parliament". About a dozen of them, to be exact. They banged their helmets on the floor, and handed in a petition demanding Boris Yeltsin's impeachment. It coincided with a decision by parliamentarians to set up a commission to consider the issue. But such threats have come and gone before, and are largely symbolic. Mr Yeltsin's chances of keeping his job are - as Mr Stasyuk and his friends know very well - far stronger than their own.