Pit strike deepens threat to Yeltsin

Echo of the past: Mass protest by Russia's miners over unpaid wages recalls troubles that toppled Gorbachev
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The Independent Online
PHIL REEVES

Moscow

It was just about the worst birthday present Boris Yeltsin could have wished for, and one which invited unhappy comparisons with an era when fortune was kinder to him. As the President turned 65, an occasion that slipped by without pomp or circumstance, hundreds of thousands of Russia's coal miners went on strike.

No one knows the miners' power better than Mr Yeltsin. Mass strikes in western Siberia, the Ukraine and elsewhere in 1989 did much to accelerate the fall of his adversary, Mikhail Gorbachev, hastening the death of the Communist Party, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and his ascent to the Kremlin.

Yesterday's strike swept through mines from southern Russia to the northern Urals and Siberia, many of which were once hotbeds of Yeltsin supporters. It was to demand back-pay, which has been held up for months, better living conditions and greater state support for the beleaguered coal industry. Rosugol, the state-controlled coal monopoly, said more than 300,000 miners walked out of 118 of Russia's 182 pits, although trade union officials put the figure at around 500,000 . More than a million miners downed tools in Ukraine for the same principal reason; they claim they are owed $370m (pounds 247m) in unpaid wages.

It is too early to predict the impact of the strike, as some miners were determined to stay out indefinitely while others restricted their action to refusing coal deliveries to consumers for only 48 hours. But, even if fears of power cuts in the freezing midwinter prove unfounded, it is another thorn in Mr Yeltsin's side, drawing unwanted attention to the plight of millions whose pay has been held up for months, including teachers, civil servants and air traffic controllers.

Just as he is doing his best to spruce up his act before June's presidential election, Mr Yeltsin will not have warmed to the spectacle of miners marching through the streets of Vorkuta, in the far north, demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin.

"A miner can work on his knees on the coalface, but he cannot live on his knees and never will," said one. Nor will Mr Yeltsin have enjoyed the sight of his opponents seizing on the issue; the State Duma (lower house of parliament), where Communists hold most seats, passed a vote of solidarity with the striking miners.

The strike went ahead despite Mr Yeltsin's efforts to deflect it, by promising to pay up. On Monday he declared the government had the money, blamed poor organisation for the delays and threatened to fire the regional bureaucrats responsible. And yesterday one of his top aides again said the miners would be paid under a new "tough monthly schedule".

But the problem runs deeper than that. Anatoly Yakunin, a Rosugol official, blamed the crisis on energy plants and factories that owe mines more than $400m for deliveries.

Whoever is at fault, they will have taken the bloom off the bunches of flowers and trinkets that Mr Yeltsin's aides gave him yesterday during a birthday that he would probably prefer to forget.

n Moscow (AP) - A Chechen activist, Ruslan Soslambekov, said yesterday that prisoners in a Grozny detention camp from which he he has just been released are being tortured. The camps were set up in Chechnya after Russian troops went in to crush its independence drive in December 1994.

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