Minsk workers strike miners spurn pay offer

April 05, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Tens of thousands of angry workers in the Byelorussian capital of Minsk shut down their factories and rallied yesterday to denounce price increases and demand the resignation of the Soviet leadership.

In the first major protest in the Soviet Union since food and clothing prices more than doubled Tuesday, the Minsk workers drowned out Byelorussian Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich with jeers when he tried to address them. His government later agreed to negotiate with a citywide strike committee, Soviet television reported.

Striking coal miners refused to return to work yesterday despite the Soviet government's promise to double their pay and grant them a host of other concessions. Strike leaders noted that the miners' political demands -- resignation of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his government and dissolution of the Soviet parliament -- had been ignored.

A number of new strikes andstrike threats were reported from around the country, and the highly publicized financial offer to the miners risked prompting other workers to walk out and demand the same concessions.

As the wave of strikes spread, Russian Federation leader Boris N. Yeltsin won from the republic's parliament initial backing for extraordinary powers to deal with the economic and political crisis.

Mr. Yeltsin appeared to be on the way to turning the special Russian Congress of People's Deputies, called by Communist hard-liners who hoped to remove him from power, into a political victory. His opponents said he was striving to create a personal dictatorship, but his defenders prevailed by noting that he had no army and could rely only on the support of the people.

The Russian leader may be the only Soviet politician who has a chance of stopping the snowballing strike movement. While Mr. Gorbachev and Soviet Prime Minister Valentin S. Pavlov have minimal credibility with striking workers, Mr. Yeltsin still retains considerable authority with Russian miners, including the militant strikers of the coal fields in Western Siberia and the Arctic.

For Mr. Gorbachev, yesterday was not a good day. Not only did the miners summarily dismiss his wage and benefit package, but the Constitutional Oversight Committee annulled his decree of January authorizing joint military-police patrols in all major cities.

The committee said a reference in the decree to carrying out Communist Party policy violated the new clause in the Soviet Constitution depriving the party of special status.

And Stanislav S. Shatalin, previously Mr. Gorbachev's top economic adviser, denounced the price increases as "economic nonsense," giving expert underpinning to the angerof much of the population.

In an interview published in the newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva last night, Mr. Shatalin said that without free enterprise, private property, a capital market and a tight credit policy, price increases would not improve the supply of goods and would have to be repeated in two or three months.

Under the circumstances, he said, the price increases amounted to "robbery" and were likely to touch off hyperinflation. Only a coalition government of trusted people of various nationalities could find a way out of the crisis, Mr. Shatalin said.

Mr. Yeltsin sprang his surprise demand for special powers on the congress yesterday morning just after warring factions finally compromised on a resolution outlining an anti-crisis program for the giant republic. The Russian Federation includes 52 percent of the population of the Soviet Union and three-fourths of its territory.

"The resolution that has been passed demands urgent and decisive action," Mr. Yeltsin told the congress. "Only in that case can we influence the complex situation that has emerged in Russia, which has grown still worse during the time of the congress, mainly as a result of the sharp increase in retail prices."

He noted the spreading strikes and "growing social tension" and said the Soviet leadership was making things worse by showing no flexibility and "inadequately reacting to events."

He asked that the permanent inner parliament, the Supreme Soviet, be delegated temporarily the greater powers of the larger and more deadlocked congress. He sought for himself powers to issue decrees with legal force -- which, like all the special powers he sought, would last only until a Russian president was elected by the people.

Mr. Yeltsin's numerous opponents seized the moment to accuse him of everything from "fraud" to creating a Stalin-style "cult of personality."

But because most of the attacks on Mr. Yeltsin came from establishment Communists with no track record as human rights advocates, they lacked credibility.

An initial vote to pass the Yeltsin measure came out 515 for and 376 against, falling 16 votes short of the 531 needed for passage -- more than half of all the deputies.

A second vote to approve the plan "as a basis" while permitting editorial changes passed 588-292.

Mr. Yeltsin's opponents are certain to try to block or water down the special powers. But yesterday's action made it clear that when they know their votes will be published, even determined enemies of Mr. Yeltsin are cautious about attacking the most popular Soviet politician.

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