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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kazakh Coal Workers Strike for Wage Claim

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- More than 100,000 coal workers in northern Kazakhstan went on strike Friday to demand wages that have gone unpaid for months, and threatened to stay out until the government meets their claims.


A prolonged stoppage could seriously damage the economy of Kazakhstan -- a mineral-rich former Soviet republic which is the size of India but has a population of just 17 million -- and heighten ethnic tensions between Kazakhs and Russians.


Twenty-one out of 23 pits around the northern city of Karaganda, a grim former Soviet penal colony, and the giant open-cast complex at Ekibastuz were idle, strike leaders said.


"We will stay on strike until the government pays us our wages -- it owes us three billion tenge ($50 million)," said regional miners' union leader Vyacheslav Sidorov. But he said the government had shown no signs of giving in to the miners' demands.


A long strike could hurt the delicate Kazakh economy. Industrial output already has slumped since independence in 1991 and double-digit monthly inflation is hitting workers' pockets.


The strike could also heighten ethnic tensions -- the coal belt in the north is mainly populated by Russian speakers, some of whom demand that their territory join Russia.


Kazakh trade unions have joined parliament in opposing the reforms introduced by Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin's government, which since its appointment in October has unleashed unpopular price rises in basic goods such as bread and fuel.


A one-day protest has been called for Jan. 20 by leaders of the official trade union congress to press for wages to be paid on time, jobs guaranteed and industrial output stabilized.


Sidorov said 98 percent of coal miners backed this week's action.


Kazakhstan used to produce one-fifth of Soviet coal output before independence in 1991.