President scrabbles for votes: Referendum campaign gets off to chilly start in Siberia

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HE CAME. He saw. But he certainly did not conquer. With less than two weeks before a referendum which could decide whether he stays in the Kremlin, Boris Yeltsin yesterday heard more complaints than cheers when he visited a grimy Siberian pithead and a smoke-belching steel works whose workers were once counted his most loyal supporters.

In a subdued start to campaigning in the provinces for the 25 April poll, Mr Yeltsin travelled 1,990 miles from Moscow to the Siberian city of Novokuznetsk, only to eschew any talk of the referendum and avoid all but the most cursory of encounters with the voters who will decide his fate.

'We don't need rallies any more, we need just calm work. We're in a period of stabilisation,' Mr Yeltsin explained after spending half an hour staring at a half-built furnace on a patch of gravel. 'We don't need ecstasy or euphoria.' There was little of either in Novokuznetsk yesterday.

Mr Yeltsin's visit, his first to the Kuzbass coal region in two years, began with a litany of grievances from miners and ended with a small but boisterous protest by nationalist demonstrators outside the Lenin KMK steel works. 'Long live Yeltsin and high prices,' said one sarcastic banner. 'Traitors get out of Russia,' said another. The protest ended without incident but required scores of riot police to secure a safe corridor through which Mr Yeltsin could reach his Zil limousine.

Less noisy, but probably more worrying to Mr Yeltsin, were the complaints at the Abashavskaya coal mine. 'Governments and presidents come and go but trade unions are here to stay,' Vyacheslav Sharipov, the leader of the independent trade union, reminded Mr Yeltsin at a meeting with 400 miners and managers. All the complaints were economic, in contrast to those made during Mr Yeltsin's last visit in 1991. Then the Kuzbass miners demanded political change as the only solution to miserable working conditions that kill most miners before the age of 60.

A miners' strike in 1991 contributed to the weakening of Mikhail Gorbachev and gave Mr Yeltsin a chance to seize Russia's mines from Soviet control. Vladimir Lavrik, the mine director, demanded that Mr Yeltsin repay his political debts with economic action. 'The miners of this mine have supported you in the past and I'm sure they will support you in the referendum. But we have the right to make certain requests.' These included better pensions, higher coal prices and the abolition of restrictions on the privatisation of energy.

Mr Yeltsin responded that any increase in coal prices would be disastrous and boost inflation, running at about 20 per cent per month, and thus increase his main political problem. 'Coal prices are everything. We tried to increase them slightly and there was a great outburst. Coal determines everything - if we free them, Russia will explode.'

But he did say that he would allow miners to take control of the mines and would give up the state's dominant share in the pits under the privatisation rules, as an experiment.

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