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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unpaid miners set to revolt Coalmen say strike 'can happen any day'

KEMEROVO, Russia - The weary silence outside the entrance of the Northern Mine on the outskirts of this gray Siberian coal city is about to be broken.

Off-duty miners, cigarettes firmly planted in their mouths, pace the cracked asphalt or sit quietly on benches with their hands clutching their dust-bitten faces. Workers for the next shift approach, stop, shake hands and disappear through the jagged front doors to suit up. Few if any of the 1, 900 miners here have cause for celebration, although for now, unlike many of the country's factory workers, their jobs are secure.

They can handle the six-hour shifts sometimes more than 200 meters underground in dark, rough tunnels, some only three feet high. Walking underground to some work sites can take up to two hours but it is no problem. Black, thick coal dust clogs their eyes, ears, nostrils and lungs but goes almost unnoticed by these veterans of the mines.

Provided they get paid, that is. and most miners here, like their counterparts throughout the coal-rich Kuznetsk Basin - called Kuzbass - haven't been paid for months, the result of a national cash shortage. For now at least, the miners continue to produce some 50 percent of Russia's coking coal and 35 percent of aggregate coal production. But that could stop anytime as the rumblings of strikes grow louder.

Stakes are high. With coal the foundation of Russia's metal and energy industries, the growing discontent in the Kuzbass region could deliver a decisive blow to Russia's already wobbly economy.

"Life is wonderful", said Viktor, a miner, whose weathered, blackened face eked out a sarcastic smile as he climbed onto the bus to head for the showers. "And it's going to get worse".

Viktor, like others, said he gets paid in spurts, 200 rubles here, 300 there. and workers going on vacation or business trips can usually find money. However, miners here think standing in the bank line will ultimately be less effective than in the picket line.

"Strikes", said Boris Lazarenko, chief engineer of the Northern Mine, "can happen any day". Lazarenko hasn't received full wages since March.

Kemerovo is no stranger to coal strikes. In 1989, miners walked out of the mines and into the town's square to protest everything from poor wages to the disappearance of soap from factory showers. They won the support of the people and eventually of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Today Kemerovo miners make as much as 25, 000 rubles a month, 20 times the average Russian wage. Concessions won include pay - referred to as "hoof money"- for the grueling walks through kilometers of dank tunnels.

Industry officials justify the payments, given working conditions that on average take one life for every million tons of coal. Accidents at this mine were largely denied, although on Friday one worker lost two of his fingers.

Even so, typical of the post-Soviet economic breakdown, here it's not what you earn, it's what you actually receive. and at a time when coal production is most needed to keep struggling factories alive, this discrepancy has made widespread strikes likely at anytime.

Strikes, however, are not what they once were. In Kuzbass, the people's support has turned to resentment, as ordinary citizens struggle to survive on substantially lower wages and scarce food. This industrial region yields little agricultural produce.

"Under centralized planning", noted Lyudmila Koryakina, a regional foreign trade official, "we brought them the raw materials, and they brought us the food. Now, all ties have broken down".

The government is also less concerned, sometimes threatening to import coal to circumvent strikes. Few miners here believe anything; the Yeltsin government says and blame it for their woes. Thus, a Kemerovo strike, once President Boris Yeltsin's unused trump card during the attempted coup last year, ironically has become his nemesis.

Each month miners receive bank vouchers, but there is no money in the banks because the government hasn't printed enough. Now it says it will, but the stagnant coal industry is likely to break down no matter what, given an internal power struggle that has reverted the industry back to old ways while other sectors move forward.

"Last year we were given a little bit of freedom, and bureaucracy filled in the gaps", Lazarenko said, noting that while several mines "escaped" control through joint ventures, 70 percent of the industry is still under state control. "But now we're back to the same old rules. They say, 'We'll put you on the carpet and teach you like children, and tell you which projects we'll finance and which ones we won't'".

The Northern Mine produces 750, 000 tons of high-quality, low-sulfur coal a year, valued at up to $45 million on World markets, but must sell 83 percent of its production at drastically lower state prices, roughly $7 a ton.

At the same time, equipment prices have soared. Combines made in Ukraine that chop the coal from mine walls and throw it onto conveyors cost one million rubles a year, up from 56, 000 in 1991. Another machine used for transport, called a complex, has soared from 2. 3 million rubles to 37 million.

"We're only given 20 percent of what we need for equipment", Lazarenko said. The end result is a Catch-22 which threatens either coal production, already estimated to be falling at a rate of 45 percent countrywide this year, if prices aren't hiked, or industrial production if they are. Ultimately, both will suffer regardless.

Is there a way out? Different officials here have different opinions. Lazarenko wants more freedom, but not too much more, to sell a greater proportion of the mine's production at world prices and determine its own finances.

There is another faction which thinks there is not enough control.

"When there is more control, there is more efficiency", claimed Gennady Gritsko, director of the Institute of Coal of the Russian Academy of Sciences here. "If there is more bureaucracy and control there is more order. The miners just think about themselves", he said. Behind his desk hung a wood etching of Lenin and a flag with his image emblazoned on it.

There is yet another faction which wants less control, with market forces determining who survives and who doesnt.

"I don't want to offend the older generation, but there are definitely people that don't want us to succeed", said Grigory Kareyev, general director of Sibex, a regional coal exporter. "Let us make some mistakes along the way but we'll make one or two and then learn".

Who will win is far from certain. The Yeltsin government appears to be backing away from freeing energy prices, recently stating it would hold back prices for now even though this may jeopardize Western aid.

However, if miners in this region and beyond decide to call it quits and lay down their helmets, it simply becomes a zero sum game.