Workers defy Kremlin, rally in Byelorussia President of Georgia urges strikes there against Soviet rule

April 11, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff Correspondent

MINSK, U.S.S.R. -- A day after Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev proposed a moratorium on strikes and rallies, tens of thousands of workers here left their jobs yesterday to demonstrate in favor of capitalism.

At the same time, the president of Georgia called for strikes, while a six-week strike by coal miners continued.

Here, as if it were just another Communist holiday, they came marching down to Lenin Square from the Minsk Tractor Factory, the Gorizont Television Plant, the Electrotechnical Factory named for Kozlov and the October Revolution Machine Plant.

They were the pride of Byelorussia's long-suffering, long-silent working class, accustomed for decades to filing dutifully past the republic's Communist bosses every Nov. 7 and May 1.

Yesterday, nobody had invited the workers. But they shut down their assembly lines and came anyway, carrying posters with new messages: "Down with Slavery," "Market Prices -- Market Wages," "Chernobyl Produce -- for the Government's Table" and "Gorbachev, Resign!"

Instead of smiling from the reviewing stand, the Communist Party leaders were holed up inside their mammoth Government House behind three rows of police. Hundreds of riot troops waited discreetly behind the building in case the workers decided to discuss last week's steep price increases with the government face-to-face.

The workers, most of them at their first political rally, listened intently.

They heard that American workers get $12 an hour on average -- a mind-boggling sum that, at the new tourist exchange rate, exceeds the average Soviet worker's monthly pay.

They heard speaker after speaker excoriate the Communist Party -- "that bloodstained party," as one worker put it, "that cost 100 million of our people's lives."

They heard one woman appeal to the police and troops never to use their arms against the strikers and another express fear of layoffs at her rundown plant.

They jeered and whistled Vladimir Goncharik, head of the official Byelorussian trade unions, forcing him to abandon his feeble defense of the Communist-controlled unions for offering workers cut-rate vacation trips. ("The official trade unions are, pardon me, prostitutes," remarked Vladimir Pokovsky, a 32-year-old construction worker.)

They cheered Anatoly Stankevich, a self-described "independent economist," for his vigorous defense of what not long ago was called the bourgeois way.

"I tell you as an economist: The only path is the path of capitalist development. [Cheer.] Capitalism shouldn't scare us. Capitalism isn't just high prices, it's high wages. [Cheer.] Capitalism is freedom," Mr. Stankevich declared, under the marble gaze of the inevitable statue of Vladimir Lenin.

At midafternoon, when they heard that the Byelorussian government had flatly refused to negotiate with the elected strike committee, the 50,000 workers in the square roared their approval for a decision to continue the strike.

The walkout in Minsk -- renewed after a week in which the government failed to meet the strikers' demands -- followed President Gorbachev's proposal Tuesday for a moratorium on all strikes and rallies during working hours for the rest of the year.

Workers scoffed yesterday at the proposal from Mr. Gorbachev, whose resignation is among their demands. After decades of powerlessness, they have discovered the power of the strike -- as defined by the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, "one of the proletariat's fundamental forms of class warfare."

The same tactic was proposed in the republic of Georgia yesterday by President Zviad Gamsakhurdia. He called for strikes at Soviet-controlled factories and key Black Sea ports and railroads to protest the deployment of Soviet troops in troubled South Ossetia. The mountainous area has been the scene of intensive fighting between Georgians and Ossetians for months.

Miners in the big Kuzbas and Donbas coal fields kept up their 6-week-old strike despite the dire situation of the metallurgy industry, which is closing down for lack of fuel. Metallurgy Minister Serafim Kolpakov, echoing Mr. Gorbachev's tough stance, said the coal strike should be stopped at all costs, even if it required imposition of a nationwide state of emergency.

But perhaps most significant for the country was Byelorussia's sudden awakening. In one angry, liberating week, the workers of Hero-City Minsk have shaken off their old image as the most docile servants of the Soviet regime. They have surprised everybody -- themselves most of all -- by answering last week's price increases with a strike.

"We were like a horse -- the more they beat us, the more we pulled," said Nikolai Karpovich, 30, who tends machinery at the Minsk Gear Factory. "But the new prices were the last straw. The people just can't take it anymore."

Mr. Karpovich showed up for the first shift April 3, the day after prices for most food and consumer goods had been raised by 50 percent to 500 percent. He found people milling around the plant, grumbling and not starting work.

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