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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Government Vs. Miners: No Contest

What would one not give to have been a fly on the wall in the negotiations between the government and the country's miners in their pay dispute Friday? Pulped, condensed and fancifully transcribed, the discussion must have gone something like this:

The miners: We are not asking for any outrageous pay raise, we are just asking to be paid the money we are owed. And before you say a word, we have been patient. We waited several months already, but because nobody took us seriously, we have been forced to walk out.

The government -- actually it isn't easy to picture exactly what the government would have to say. Presumably, something like: Yes, yes, we understand. But you can go back to work now, because your salaries have already been paid and, trust us, this won't happen again.

The miners: If the money has been paid, then why don't we have it? And save us the trust business, we have been having this same discussion several times a year for the past two or three years. You guys can't help yourselves.

In fairness, the government has not had an easy time of it. Economic stabilization was not going to be achieved without cost, and over the last few years, the government has had to make some very hard choices. But the wrong choice was consistently made.

The government opted to pay for stabilization from the pockets of the work force, rather than by tapping the wealth of such conglomerates as the state gas monopoly Gazprom, or putting a stop to such ridiculous anomalies as the tax exemptions granted to the State Sports Committee on imports of alcohol and tobacco.

When President Boris Yeltsin said last week that the money was there to pay workers their salary arrears, he was right, and it always has been there. It is the failure of courage to force trillions of rubles in unpaid taxes from powerful lobbies that has led the government to finance its stabilization program by holding back payment of wages.

The miners' predicament is particularly acute, because even after this particular crisis over pay is resolved, their long-term prospects look bleak. The Russian coal industry faces the same decline that its counterparts endured in Britain and Western Europe in the 1970s and '80s and in the United States starting in the 1930s, and there will be precious little safety net to catch unemployed miners here when they fall.

The cost of dealing in a humane fashion with the inevitable restructuring of the coal mining industry will be enormous. It is hard to feel much confidence that, next time, the government will make the right tough choices.