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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Miners Mull Nationwide Autumn Strike

Russia's restive coal miners, who have been staging scattered walkouts in recent days, could launch another nationwide strike over delays in wages payments and failure of coal consumers to pay their bills, a trade union official said Wednesday.

Mine union leader Vitaly Budko said the industry remained in bad shape despite President Boris Yeltsin's emphatic promises of help and timely wage payments during his recent re-election campaign.

"Coal users have practically stopped paying us, and state subsidies lag behind the schedule," Budko said, adding that coal users owe the industry more than 6.5 trillion rubles ($1.26 billion).

A coal strike at four mines in Primorsky region of the Far East spread further Wednesday when another 500 miners at Artyom halted their work to protest a five-month delay in wage payments.

About 5,000 miners are currently on strike in the energy-starved Primorsky region, which is trying to recuperate from an electric power blackout last week.

A four-day nationwide walkout last February threatened to wreak havoc with Russia's coal-dependent industry. It ended only when Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin agreed to substantially increase subsidies and pay wages on time.

Budko said the mine union leaders would consider another nationwide strike at a meeting in August if the government makes no improvements to payments between the industry and energy users.

He said such a strike, if approved by the union leadership, could begin during the first cold months in Russia, when it would be most effective.

Budko said miners were still waiting to pick up 650 billion rubles of their July money and 880 billion of arrears of state subsidies from the first six months of this year.

"We've got to build up the coal stocks for the winter. If there's no money, we're going to have another energy crisis like the one in [the Far East]" last week, he said.

After last February's strike, the government increased its annual coal industry subsidies to 10.4 trillion rubles ($2.2 billion) from the previous level of about 7.4 trillion rubles.

Pyotr Kiryasov, head of the regional miners' union in the Far East, warned that sporadic strikes could develop into a region-wide walkout.

"It's impossible to stop angry people by mere discussions, and we should realize clearly that all of the mines may stop tomorrow," Itar-Tass quoted him as saying.

About 7,000 miners at one of Russia's largest strip mines in Neryungri, Yakutia, went on strike Tuesday over a three-month wage delay. A smaller strike was reported at the Inta mine in Komi republic of the Far North.

Vladimir Kashin, deputy director of the expert center at the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, predicted the miners would take a tough stand in talks with the government because winter coal supplies were still scarce.

"The government could allow them to go on strike in spring, when they still had plenty of coal in stock. Now it's going to be much more painful," he said.

Russia is set to receive a $520 million loan from the World Bank to back up the government's program for closing down unprofitable and run-down coal mines and related social costs. The first tranche of the loan is due to arrive next week.