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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Defense Workers Join Wage Protests

About 1,500 angry defense industry workers from around Russia descended on the capital Wednesday, some after a three-day journey by foot, to demand payment for their labor.

The protest was the latest sign of growing national discontent over unpaid wages, especially strong in Russia's regions. Kuzbass coal miners blocked freight traffic on the mighty Trans-Siberian Railroad for the sixth straight day Wednesday, while hundreds of miners from the Far North and other regions vowed to keep up their nearly month-long vigil outside the White House in Moscow.

The increasing pressure on the government to cough up hard cash comes as Russia is trying desperately to cut spending to deal with a financial crisis.

The defense workers, representing more than 20 Russian regions, picketed the Defense Ministry on Arbatskaya Ploschad. They called for payment of wages stretching back over two years, increased government defense orders and the immediate resignation of President Boris Yeltsin.

"We have to join forces with the miners and get rid of him," said Gennady Rukol, a military shipbuilder from the Yantar factory in Kaliningrad. "We continue to work, but [the government] hasn't paid us for any work we have done in the past two years. It owes our factory 67 million rubles."

The wages owed by the state to Russia's defense workers stand at some 2.5 billion rubles ($400 million), Interfax said.

Defense workers also protested Wednesday in St. Petersburg, where 200 people picketed the local government building. In Vladivostok, they were among about 4,000 people who rallied against the government. Other demonstrations took place in Novosibirsk, Perm and Komsomolsk-Na-Amure, while even officers in the Baltic Fleet began a hunger strike Wednesday to protest a lack of adequate housing.

In Moscow, Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Mikhailov was dispatched to meet the protesters. He said the restructuring of the Russian defense industry was being discussed within the government, but he did not say when workers could expect their wages. He tried to appease the angry crowd by telling them that Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko would meet with defense workers before the week's end.

Most dismissed him. "It is just more empty promises," shouted one man who clutched a sign reading: "Yeltsin, the rails are waiting for you"

But despite the growing frustration among unpaid workers, their power to destabilize the government is limited, one analyst said.

"The only thing that could deliver a final blow to Yeltsin is either a mass uprising in Moscow or the economy: a rise in GKO's and devaluation of the ruble," said Nikolai Korgonyuk, of the Indem think tank. "That would inflame the situation tenfold." he said.

Calls for Yeltsin's resignation also were coming from the troubled Kemerovo coal region, where pit workers continued to block the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

While the miners allowed passenger trains unhindered passage, up to 23 freight trains at a time waited in stations to be diverted on alternative lines.

Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev, who has publicly expressed his support for the miners' plight, sent a telegram Wednesday to Yeltsin asking him to personally intervene in the crisis.

Miners say the government has not honored the deal it struck with them in May to end their earlier railroad blockade. The Finance Ministry, though, insists the wage arrears have been met.

The Kuzbass miners refused Monday to negotiate with a delegation headed by Deputy Fuel and Energy Minister Igor Kozhukhovsky, saying he was not highly placed enough to resolve the crisis.

But on Tuesday talks began. No agreement has been reached, although miners blocking the rails in one Siberian mining town agreed to abandon their protest, RTR television reported Wednesday.

The Railways Ministry estimates losses by Wednesday to stand at 12.3 million rubles, Interfax reported. Losses caused by the 10-day blockade in May were an estimated 355 million rubles.

The government has not disputed that it owes money to the defense industry workers. But it also says it can no longer afford to maintain the plants at Soviet-era levels.

Among the protesters in Moscow on Wednesday were 250 workers from the Nizhgorodskoye and Vladimir regions. They had spent the last three days walking to the Moscow, a hike of about 500 kilometers.

One of the marchers was Vladimir Bichkov, who has worked in a top-secret weapons factory in the central Russian town of Kovrov for 33 years. While 10 years ago, he worked five days a week, now he works only three. The work force has been chopped by a third since 1990 and each of the 17,000 workers has wage arrears from 2 months to one year, he said.

"The situation is the same in each of Kovrov's eight factories," Bichkov said. "The town is built around the industry, so we are trapped."

The protesters said that if their demands are not met within two months, they will "go to the barricades." Union leaders are planning a nationwide day of protest in October.

And outside the White House, the main government building, some 200 coal miners are continuing a round-the-clock protest that started June 11. Although they have received permission to stay only until Saturday, the miners insist they are not going home until Yeltsin is toppled.

"I will go home when the snow comes," said Nikolai Cheryomkin of the Severnaya mine in Vorkuta. "Yes, by then it will be too cold to sleep in the tent."