Coal strike, vote boycott alarm Soviet leadership

March 07, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- The Soviet leadership showed increasing alarm yesterday over a spreading coal miners' strike and the determination of at least six republics to boycott the March 17 referendum on preserving the union.

The hard-line Soyuz (Union) faction in the Soviet parliament asked President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to move to force all republics to hold the referendum. Other deputies said the vote should be postponed to avert a political catastrophe.

Prosecutors were dispatched to mines in the Ukraine's Donbass coal field to warn miners that they could be jailed for agitating in favor of the walkout. Deputy Prime Minister Lev Ryabyev sent a )) telegram to the Arctic mining region of Vorkuta offering talks, but the miners said they would stop work at midnight and agreed to talk only to Mr. Gorbachev or Prime Minister Valentin S. Pavlov.

The coal strike threatens a crippling chain reaction of plant shutdowns across the country, accelerating an already dramatic fall in production of many industrial goods. The referendum boycott could foil Mr. Gorbachev's hope to demonstrate support for the union.

Both developments, to a considerable degree, have targeted Mr. Gorbachev and his policies. Miners in the Kuzbass region of Western Siberia are specifically demanding his resignation and pledging support for his archrival, Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin. The referendum boycott is an outright rejection of Mr. Gorbachev's promises to grant more power to the republics.

Mr. Pavlov's just-formed government has been taking a tough line against the strikes, which began with a token work stoppage last week and have gradually picked up steam. The miners' demands all include pay raises of 100 percent or more, fulfillment of a pension plan and other concessions agreed to after a 1989 strike, and a mixed bag of political issues.

Coal Minister Lev Shchadov told strikers they would not be paid as they were in earlier walkouts, and some mine bosses have threatened strikers with heavy fines. Mr. Pavlov said Tuesday that the state has no money to boost the miners' wages -- which, at 400 to 500 rubles a month, are already double the Soviet average.

"I'd like to raise everyone's pay tomorrow as high as the miners wish," he said on television Tuesday. "There's only one question: Where will we get the money?"

But strike leaders yesterday rejected the poverty claim.

"The prime minister did not persuade the workers with his speech," said Andrei Y. Slyvko, a Donbass strike committee member, in a radio interview. "He asks where to get the money. We're spending a great deal of money, for instance, on defense -- and it's not clear who we have to defend ourselves against."

The precise number of mines and miners on strike is impossible to determine. The Communist-controlled official media often understate the scale of the work stoppage, while strike organizers exaggerate it.

It is clear that several dozen of the more than 500 coal mines in the country are shut down, and several dozen more have stopped shipping coal. The strike could keep growing and the miners could set a dangerous precedent for other workers on the eve of sharp food price rises announced by the government.

The March 17 referendum was designed by Mr. Gorbachev to prove that most Soviet citizens want to preserve the Soviet Union in some form, a premise few doubt. But the dogged resistance to the referendum in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia, and the strong doubts in several other republics, are turning March 17 into a deeply divisive issue.

Again, the Kremlin seems uncertain how tough a stance to take. Officials at first said that where republican governments refuse to organize voting, it may be conducted on military bases and in factories subordinate to Moscow-based ministries.

On Tuesday, the Constitutional Oversight Committee declared that even "indirect" action by republican officials to block the referendum would be a violation of the Soviet Constitution. It did not suggest what action might be taken in response, but the committee's legal opinion would give a basis in law for the use of the army to try to ensure voting.

Some deputies proposed that the referendum be delayed until the draft of a new union treaty is complete so that voters feel more confident about what kind of union they are voting for.

But Anatoly I. Lukyanov, chairman of the Soviet parliament, said that because the full parliament, the Congress of People's Deputies, had set the referendum, the smaller Supreme Soviet had no right to make changes.

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