Russia's miners let trains run One month's pay ends railroad blockade but won't avert mine closures


MOSCOW -- Striking coal miners lifted a 10-day-old blockade of the Trans-Siberian and other vital railroads yesterday after the government promised to pay some overdue wages. But the breakthrough probably provided only a short pause in a disruptive clash over how to handle looming mine closures.

Thousands of miners angered by the government's failure to pay them for months had been camping out on the rail lines to hinder traffic and transport, having despaired of drawing official attention with hunger strikes and work stoppages in pits destined for closure anyway.

First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Y. Nemtsov, deployed to mediate the standoff in the roiling Rostov region, returned to Moscow after railroad traffic resumed with the warning that the confrontation is far from over.

"This is only the beginning of what is needed to halt the crisis in Russia's coal industry," Nemtsov said of the government's agreement to pay part of the wage arrears.

Nemtsov and another deputy prime minister, Oleg N. Sysuyev, had been dispatched to two of the most volatile regions of the widespread miners' revolt to appeal to the strikers to cease the blockades that delayed more than 600 trains and cost the federal Railroad Ministry at least $30 million, the ministry reported in a statement.

"The government is not in the mood to fight miners, only to fight for the resolution of their problems," Sysuyev observed after his return from three days of difficult negotiations with miners in the Siberian Kuzbass basin.

Kuzbass was the scene of paralyzing miners' strikes in 1991 that hastened the political demise of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. But the miners' im- portance to the economy has plummeted in the post-Communist era, stripping them of any clout with those now in power.

With Russia's economy now more dependent on oil, and with most coal-fired industrial plants idled by sharp drops in orders for their substandard output, the market for coal has fallen sharply over the past decade.

Despite the inescapable reality that as many as half of Russia's 500,000 miners will have to be sacked to make the industry more cost-effective, the federal government has procrastinated in ordering mine closures. That has left the miners ostensibly still employed and on the government payroll, but with too little work to do and even less clout in getting their salaries from the short-funded state coffers.

The railroad obstructions that had frustrated deliveries to operating industries across Russia were lifted after the mediators convinced Coal Miners Union Chairman Ivan Mokhnachuk that sufficient federal funds to pay the miners one month's overdue wages had been transferred to the regions.

But the strikers made clear that they would not tolerate %o deception. If the rest of the arrears remains unpaid July 1, miners will resume their blockades of federal railroads, warned Aman Tuleyev, governor of the Kemerovo region, which includes the Kuzbass basin.

The Russian Coal Miners Union contends that the government's arrears to the miners amounts to $1.45 billion, with the average miner owed more than six months' wages. But union leaders fear that full repayment will never be made because the government is gearing up to close the most unprofitable mining sites.

Pub Date: 5/25/98

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