Russia Facing Long Hot Summer

The roar of hundreds of coal miners drumming their helmets on the pavement rolls like thunder up the glass and granite face of Russia's White House, the seat of government. Even more ominous is the repeated mass chant: "Resign! Resign!". Fred Weir reports from Moscow on the latest wave of militancy of Russian miners.

"Coal miners put Yeltsin in power, and now we will remove him," says Alexander Sergeyev, chairman of the Independent Miners' Union, once Yeltsin's key working class power base in his struggle against former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

In mid-June Sergeyev led a contingent of miners to Moscow from Vorkuta, an Arctic coal producing centre, to protest nearly a year of unpaid wages and a ledger of broken promises to retrain and resettle miners who have been displaced by Russia's dead-end market reforms.

Angry

Joined by angry scientists from the blighted former Soviet science communities of Pushino and Protvino near Moscow, they say there is no longer any point in repeating their time-worn economic demands; they're ready to make it political.

"This government has betrayed us times beyond counting, and we will not back down now until it is gone," says Sergeyev.

Though it's received scant notice so far, Russia's chronically unpaid and abused labour force is in ferment. In recent months groups of desperate workers in a dozen regions have blockaded highways and railroads, occupied government buildings, taken their managers hostage and staged drawn out, bitter hunger strikes over the collapse of their hopes.

"The problems of wage arrears and disappearing jobs have been with us for several years, and there has always been protest," says Andrei Isayev, spokesman for the 50-million member Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FITUR). "But this year something new is happening, workers are becoming radicalised and they are no longer willing to be put off with promises."

The crisis has its roots in the Russian government's inflation-fighting policies since 1995, which put public sector workers' salaries, pensions, military expenditure and reimbursement of state suppliers at the bottom of the list of things to pay. Millions of public employees and workers in industries that depend on government contracts often go for months without any cash income. The chain of non-payments has worked its way through Russia's entire dilapidated - if nominally privatised -industrial heartland. In 1997 nearly half of all Russian workers experienced some disruption in their wages; one-in-four went without a paycheck for at least 3 months.

People survive by producing their own food - a staggering 40 per cent of all food consumed in Russia is grown in private family gardens - moonlighting, sharing within extended families and avoiding taxes and cash payments of all kinds. In the past the government headed off protest movements by making sweeping pledges of imminent reform and by making occasional pay-offs to the better-organised workers, such as coal miners.

Financial collapse this year has ruptured that precarious balance. The Moscow stock market has lost roughly 60 per cent of its value since January, interest rates have soared to crippling levels, and servicing Russia's huge domestic debt now devours over a third of all state spending. So far bankers and bondholders appear to be getting their interest on time, but millions of doctors, teachers, scientists and coal miners have yet to see a single pay packet in 1998.

"The government has just stopped paying its bills to the military, pensioners, public service employees and workers in state industry," says Vladimir Spiransky, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Centre for Labour Studies. "At the same time the state is squeezing struggling industries to pay more taxes, and threatening to cut off electricity and gas to communities that don't pay their bills. People who were just barely surviving are now driven to desperation."

Blockaded

In May miners in Vorkuta, southern Russia and Siberia blockaded the railways, stopping hundreds of trains and nearly paralysing Russia's transport network. Joined by doctors and teachers in some areas, the actions came dangerously close to touching off a general strike.

Vigorous intervention by the government, including large cash injections to the miners, convinced protesters to temporarily lift the railway blockade. But by mid-June Vorkuta miners had sent the contingent to lay siege to the Russian White House and were shutting down the Moscow-Vorkuta rail line again.

As the mountain of wage arrears grows, government spending dwindles and the economy shrinks, the threat of working class explosion looms over Russia.

"This is going to be a hot summer," says Isayev. "There are many flash points in our society, and all of them are going critical at once. In many regions of this country the situation is dramatically close to social breakdown.

"Serious labour upheavals in the coming months are inevitable. Mass revolt is a distinct possibility."