Miners' Strike Will Not Scare Government

The press has reported widely on First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais' visit to the enormous mining region of Kemerovo. The planned country-wide demonstrations this Thursday have been equally well covered. There can be no doubt that Chubais' first official trip in his new capacity and the forthcoming strikes are directly linked to one another.


The virtual dismissal of the cabinet and the nomination of new ministers has made one of the strikers' main demands -- dissolving the government -- pointless. But this is, of course, not enough. The strikers will be calling on the authorities to pay back at least a part of the wages they are owed.


Miners, who have been hardest hit by the nonpayments crisis, are the most organized of the workers who will be striking. It is for this reason that Chubais visited Kemerovo. Before his trip, he had already sent the Kemerovo oblast 170 billion rubles ($29 million) to pay back debts and support the oldest and most hopeless mines of the region.


Union leaders are certain to remind the government how the miners' strikes at the end of the '80s shook the foundations of the country's political system. Last week, union leaders said 7 million people would participate in the All-Russian Strike.


There is reason to doubt this, however. A good number of workers in the fuel and energy complex, of which the coal industry is a part, are doing quite well. The same is true for Gazprom, which counts some 400,000 workers. LUKOIL's, president, Vagit Alekperov told me last week that the 125,000 workers in his company have had no experience with nonpayment of wages and do not intend to strike.


But even the miners are far from being as unanimous and organized as they were in the '80s. Moreover, the workers in each separate mine -- and the economic prospects of the various mines vary greatly -- think far more about their own companies than the political ambitions of union leaders.


The striking miners have recently learned some hard lessons. The Izvestia correspondent in Kemerovo, Boris Sinyavsky, told me how a fire that resulted from a recent strike in the Pervomaiskaya mine practically ruined the company, which provided work to about 2,000 men. There is now no money for retraining the workers, and it is unclear where they will find new jobs. A similar situation occurred at another large mine in the Kemerovo region, the Tsentralnaya. Although there were no fires, the strikes lasted so long that the formerly viable company was destroyed. Everyone knows what happened in the Pervomaiskaya and Tsentralnaya mines and no one wants to repeat their fates.


The heads of the two main miners' unions -- Rosugleprof and the Independent Miners' Union -- said they still intended to participate in Thursday's protests. They also said, however, they would not necessarily stop production and that demonstrations would most likely take the form of meetings and gatherings.


Another possible reason for the change of mood is that the miners believe, if only somewhat, the promises of the new first deputy prime minister. If this is the case, then the government truly has an opportunity to make a breakthrough.


In other words, there is reason to believe that March 27 will not be such a frightening day for the authorities or bring a government crisis in its wake.





Mikhail Berger is economics editor for Izvestia.