Russian miners end strike but warn of new walkout if power isn't shared

May 09, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Striking coal miners agreed to return to work yesterday after their industry was freed from the control of the Soviet bureaucracy, ending a costly nine-week strike that demonstrated the clout of the workers' movement.

But in militant Kuzbas, the west Siberian coal fields where the strike was strongest, miners warned that the walkout would be renewed in two months if they were unhappy with the way the government of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was keeping its promise to share power with the republics and the workers.

The Council of Kuzbas Strike Committees voted to suspend the strike as of midnight tonight, the official Tass news agency reported.

In the Arctic mining area around Vorkuta, most mines decided to support the regional strike committee's decision to return to work, Tass reported. Two mines stayed on strike to press local demands, including in one case the dismissal of unpopular mine managers.

The big coal fields around Karaganda in Kazakhstan and Donetsk in the Ukraine already had returned to work after negotiations with local leaders. But the Russian miners were holding out until they could review a document transferring control of the mines from the Soviet Coal Industry Ministry to the Russian Federation.

That document represents an important political victory for Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin in his rivalry with Mr. Gorbachev. It is also a significant breakthrough in the long war against central bureaucratic control over the economy.

The Soviet Coal Industry Ministry traditionally has kept a tight grip on the mines, subsidizing the unprofitable, sweeping away the profits of the profitable and generally telling everybody what to do.

Mr. Yeltsin has pledged that the mines' transfer to Russian control will not mean merely that republican bureaucrats replace Soviet bureaucrats in running the coal mines from afar. Instead, he is offering to let them choose their own form of ownership and self-management, requiring only that they pay the Russian government taxes on their earnings.

He has said the coal agreement will be used as a model for similar transfers of control in the energy, metallurgy and transport industries.

If his predictions come true, the huge central ministerial bureaucracycould be dealt a very serious blow, opening the way potentially for the operation of a free market.

The Soviet government appears not to have wanted to lose control of such a critical industry as coal. But the strike idled more than 300,000 of the country's 1.2 million coal miners and forced the shutdown of many metal and chemical plants.

Unlike ethnic violence or political demonstrations, the strikes could not be halted with the use of the army and KGB, and they forced the Soviet president to compromise with Mr. Yeltsin.

Workers' rediscovery of the power of the strike weapon so far has worked almost completely in favor of Mr. Yeltsin and the anti-Communist democrats. But some Soviet and Western observers are warning that the same weapon could eventually be wielded against Mr. Yeltsin and other republican leaders.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta (or Independent Newspaper), a leading reformist publication, warned this week of such a possibility. Tatyana Malkyna wrote that miners in the Kuzbas consider Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Gorbachev to be "products of the same regime."

She said strike leaders there were vowing caution, saying, "If the Russian government squeezes us dry, we'll rise up against the Russian government as well."

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