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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Government Talks Tough to Strikers

Power was fully restored to Sakhalin Island on Thursday after coal miners stopped blocking rail lines supplying a generating plant with fuel, but other workers continued protests over unpaid wages, with ambulance workers on strike in Vladivostok and truckloads of salmon blocked in Kamchatka.

The government appeared to be shifting from its tolerant line toward the scattered but disruptive protests, as Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov said mines would lose their government subsidies in regions where such protests continued.

"The government will not accept any miners' demands that are illegal or that have been put forward in the course of blocking rail lines," Nemtsov was quoted by Itar-Tass as saying. He said prosecutors in the Kemerovo and Chelyabinsk regions were preparing criminal charges against blockade organizers there.

Nemtsov said the only rail blockade remaining Thursday was on the South Ural line, where coal miners from the Chelyabinsk region had halted traffic.

On Wednesday, miners on Sakhalin Island, off Russia's Pacific coast, permitted railroad cars carrying coal to reach the island's generating plant, which had been supplying power for only part of each day and faced possible shutdown.

Power was fully restored by 4 p.m. Moscow time Thursday, Interfax reported, after miners let 3,000 tons of coal reach the power plant. The pickets did not lift the blockade completely, saying they would let through 1,500 tons of coal a day until Monday, and would then resume the blockade if back wages were not paid.

Millions of workers in the state and private sectors have gone without being paid for months at a time. Most of the arrears are in the private sector, but enterprises say that government customers are at fault for not paying their bills.

The coal miners have been the most forceful about their grievances, frequently blocking rail traffic. But other workers, such as doctors, teachers and power plant workers, have joined in.

Vladivostok ambulance workers halted most service, and municipal workers in the Ust-Bolsheretsk district in Kamchatka in the Far East blocked highway traffic, halting trucks laden with humpback salmon, Interfax reported.

Ust-Bolsheretsk police Colonel Ivan Dankulinets said pickets were letting through fish only after checking whether it was legally caught and whether the companies had paid taxes to the local budget.

In the Chelyabinsk region, railway authorities were sending passenger and freight cars around a blockade by alternate routes. Officials at the Railways Ministry in Moscow said they hoped to resume coal supplies to the Argayashkaya utility station that supplies heat and power to the Mayak nuclear facility.

Mayak, which reprocesses nuclear waste and dismantled warheads, depends on electricity provided by the utility station to power essential electronic safety systems. Officials at the nuclear complex have warned that those systems could fail, sending nuclear facilities haywire unless power is restored to normal levels.

About 70 miners remained on a hunger strike in Partizansk, in the Far East, and trains were temporarily stalled on a stretch of the Zabaikalsk Railway near Chita in south-eastern Siberia after the local electricity company cut off electricity to the railway because of unpaid bills. Power was later restored to the railway.

In Moscow, a trade union official vowed "total war" over wage arrears and the austerity measures the government is trying to impose to satisfy conditions of its $22.6 billion loan package assembled by the International Monetary Fund.

Andrei Isayev, head of the political arm of the Russian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, said at a press conference that union organizations would meet Aug. 27 to prepare for a nationwide strike Oct. 7. Nationwide protests were called in March 1996 and April 1997, but attendance fell far short of union leaders' predictions and the events had little impact.

Seated in a trade union meeting hall hung with portraits of former trade union chiefs including Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev and Gennady Yanayev, leader of the failed 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, Isayev said this next strike "would surpass all that has gone before."

He denounced the government's decision to accept the IMF loans, saying "this foreign money is given only for a time, and with interest," he said, "but they are taking away our social guarantees forever."