Byelorussians return to work when talks reopen Party leaders halt negotiating impasse

April 12, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- More than 200,000 Byelorussian industrial workers suspended their strike yesterday after republican officials reversed themselves and agreed to open negotiations.

Meanwhile, workers in Georgia shut down that republic's railroads and many factories to press a demand for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from strife-torn South Ossetia.

Coal miners who have closed more than 200 mines and demanded the resignation of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the rest of the Soviet leadership and parliament seemed to be standing firm yesterday.

Prime Minister Valentin S. Pavlov warned that the chain reaction of plant closings caused by the coal shortage could return the Soviet Union to a pre-industrial state.

"We see in numbers and concrete facts where the situation is headed," Mr. Pavlov, one of the strikers' chief targets, told Soviet radio. "We know that what's happening could bring on a national catastrophe. You all know what it means to shut down metallurgy. It means to put the country on its knees, to leave it without machinery. A country without machinery is a raw-materials supplier.

"And we'd be finished as a great country," he said.

The Byelorussian strike began spontaneously last week as relatively low-paid factory workers in the capital, Minsk, walked off the job to protest steep price increases for food and consumer goods.

The strike was suspended for a week but renewed Wednesday on a larger scale when Byelorussian authorities declined to go beyond limited economic concessions and refused to negotiate with the strikers.

Yesterday, faced by the nearunanimous determination of Minsk workers to stand their ground, Byelorussia's largely conservative, Communist leadership gave in. In the afternoon, strike leaders emerged from a meeting with Byelorussian Vice President Stanislav S. Shushkevich and told tens of thousands of workers in Lenin Square that talks would begin today.

The rally swiftly broke up, and factories started up for the second shift.

Strike leaders emphasized that the Byelorussian leadership had agreed to discuss any questions that fell within republican jurisdiction, including their political demands. One demand is for new republican elections by July in which the current leaders are unlikely to win, so in effect the leadership has agreed to its apparent ouster.

Whatever comes of the talks, it is clear that the strike already has had enormous psychological impact in Byelorussia, long considered a peaceful backwater with obedient, loyal workers.

"The main victory for us is that the people now understand that they cannot live in the old way any longer," Georgy S. Mukhin, one of three co-chairmen of the strike committee, told the Associated Press.

Mr. Shushkevich, in a television interview, said the strike showed that new relations were needed between the people and leadership.

"In our society, based on our earlier history, there's a syndrome of distrust," he said. "I hope these days will become the beginning of mutual understanding. On a whole number of questions, we're on the same side of the barricades. The strike committee understands better than we do that continuing the strike means worsening the material position of the republic, and in the first place worse-off citizens."

The Soviet Union is teetering on the brink of economic disaster as a result of the wave of strikes, which has further complicated an already chaotic economic situation.

Officials claim that the coal strike, which began March 1, already is resulting in a sharp reduction in the supply of agricultural machinery as spring planting begins.

The administration and trade unions of the Vladimir Tractor Factory, in the Russian city of Vladimir, wrote to the Soviet and Russian Federation leadership to say the plant had been closed for lack of supplies, an indirect consequence of the coal strike. Their letter said the plant's 18,000 workers had been left without work and appealed to the miners to return to their jobs.

The country's Communist leadership, from Mr. Gorbachev down, appears to be greatly alarmed by the strike tactic adopted by frustrated workers and encouraged by anti-Communist activists.

Miners in the western Siberian Kuzbas coal field have been sendingemissaries around the country to set up ties with local strike committees and to give instruction and advice on organizing strikes.

A commentator for the official news program "Vremya" denounced the political opposition's attempt to take advantage of the strikes to force the government into round table discussions or a coalition with non-Communist parties.

The commentator reported that "to Minsk are arriving representatives of Rukh [the Ukrainian independence movement], Sajudis [the Lithuanian independence movement] and Democratic Russia [a coalition of opposition parties] to stir up the workers' dissatisfaction even more." He compared their action to that of Russian revolutionaries in the pre-1917 period.

The strike called in Georgia by the Round Table coalition led by President Zviad Gamsakhurdia showed how work stoppages have become the political tool of choice.

The Round Table endorsed the coal miners' demands, in addition to demanding that Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs troops be removed from South Ossetia.

But Soviet television ran documentary footage of the conflict last night, showing Georgian homes burned out by Ossetians and Ossetian homes wrecked and burned by Georgians. The film, made by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, was aimed at proving that without Soviet troops, the result would be open civil war or hunger.

Mr. Gamsakhurdia alleges that the Ossetians are "terrorists" and "Kremlin agents" with a mission to prevent Georgian independence.

In interviews, he has strongly suggested that the Ossetians should leave Georgian territory and move to what he called "their historic homeland," North Ossetia, part of the Russian Federation.

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