Yeltsin spurns Red Square, praises striking miners

May 02, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Shunning an invitation to stand beside President Mikhail S. Gorbachev on Red Square, Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin marked yesterday's traditional labor holiday with the striking Siberian coal miners who have reshaped Soviet politics by rediscovering workers' power.

Before a crowd of miners in Novokuznetsk, Mr. Yeltsin signed an agreement to accept the transfer of Russian coal mines from the heavy-handed jurisdiction of the Soviet ministerial bureaucracy to new financial independence under the Russian Federation.

The transfer appears likely to end the crippling, 2-month-old coal strike if it is formally approved by the Soviet government Sunday or Monday, as Mr. Yeltsin says has been agreed.

"The smartest boss is the people," said Mr. Yeltsin, who is using his Siberian trip to launch his campaign for the Russian presidency.

He pledged that apart from collecting taxes on profits, the Russian Federation government would grant the coal mines complete freedom to manage their own affairs.

"The miners have turned out to be the initiators of the destruction of the old command-administrative system and creators of a new system of economic management," Mr. Yeltsin said at the rally.

His aides say that the coal agreement is expected to become the model for the transfer of several other key industries to Russian jurisdiction, striking a blow against the stifling Soviet bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gorbachev, who had been jeered off the reviewing stand atop Lenin's mausoleum by anti-Communist demonstrators on May Day a year ago, watched a relatively scant and dispirited crowd of invited guests wave banners and carry balloons across Red Square.

"This is nothing," said a police officer, Nikolai N. Ivanov, watching marchers trickle from the square after they had stood for an hour and listened to speeches.

"A few years ago, they marched for two hours just to get everybody through the square."

Mr. Gorbachev did not speak but had to listen to the traditionally tame leaders of the official trade unions berate his economic performance. The unions, rather than the government and Communist Party, for the first time handled the organization of the May Day rally.

"People do not understand what's happening," said Vladimir P. Shcherbakov, chairman of the General Confederation of Trade Unions. "There is no war, no drought, no epidemic, no disasters -- but we are talking about hunger."

Last week Mr. Yeltsin, along with the leaders of eight other Soviet republics, signed a joint declaration with Mr. Gorbachev that represented a major political compromise.

Mr. Gorbachev received Mr. Yeltsin's backing for rapid signing of a new union treaty and for a call for an end to political strikes.

But the Soviet president recognized the right of six independence-minded republics not to sign the union treaty and agreed to new elections for the Soviet president and parliament after approval of a new constitution.

At the peak of the coal strike, which is now fading, a third of the country's 1 million coal miners were idled. Their example inspired a major industrial strike in Byelorussia and symbolic work stoppages across Russia.

Political analyst Vyacheslav Dolganov, writing in the newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta yesterday, called the movement "a real force that must be reckoned with" and credited the strikers with halting the reactionary turn of Mr. Gorbachev and the Soviet government.

"It was their will and restraint that stopped the noticeable turn to the right and rejection of reform by the union leadership," he wrote.

"It was they who, along with democratically minded politicians, won from the center an admission -- albeit so far only in words -- HTC of the sovereignty and rights of the republics and the need for fundamental reform of the union's legislative bodies."

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