WORLD

‘We want a better life’

Striking coal miners challenge the Kremlin

MALCOLM GRAY April 22 1991
WORLD

‘We want a better life’

Striking coal miners challenge the Kremlin

MALCOLM GRAY April 22 1991

‘We want a better life’

Striking coal miners challenge the Kremlin

THE SOVIET UNION

Red Army Street is little more than a muddy lane lined with tumbledown cottages in central Donetsk, a grimy city of one million people in southeastern Ukraine. But on a street named after one of the Soviet Union’s proudest institutions, the water gushing from a broken curbside pump last week was symbolic. Workers at 16 mines in the Donetsk Basin, the country’s largest and richest coalfield, were the first to strike in protest against poor living conditions and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic and political policies. Now, she weeks later, about 300,000 of the country’s 1.2 million miners are idle, and workers in other industries have also downed their tools. On Red Army Street, Alexander Andrukhin, a 45-year-old miner, tried unsuccessfully to shut off the broken pump, the only source of water for the street's residents, and he complained bitterly about the cramped conditions. “Those houses were built over 100 years ago, each for a single family,” said Andrukhin. “Now, three or four families share that space. That is progress under socialism and that is why we are on strike—we just want a better life for everyone.”

In pursuit of that loosely defined goal, min-

ers from the Polish border to the North Pacific island of Sakhalin voted last week to hold fast to their political demands—notably, that Gorbachev resign. They have already spurned a government offer to double their wages to an average of $1,470 per month by the end of 1992. And recent price increases on consumer goods have only reinforced the miners’ argument that a pay increase without sweeping political change would be an illusory gain. The miners’ defiance of Soviet authority has led other workers and consumers to show their own dissatisfaction. And when Gorbachev responded last week by proposing so-called anticrisis measures, including restrictions on strikes and demonstrations, protesters took to the streets with renewed outrage.

In Byelorussia, a normally tranquil and conservative republic, more than 200,000 workers staged a two-day strike to protest a tripling of prices of bread and other staples on April 2. And in Georgia, which followed the three Baltic republics and formally declared its independence last week, rail workers walked off the job. The republic’s president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, said that he would also call a one-day general strike to support the miners’ political

demands. According to Georgian officials, that still-unscheduled strike would also serve as a protest against the Kremlin’s refusal to withdraw Soviet troops from South Ossetia, a tiny, mountainous enclave within the Georgian republic. There, a violent ethnic conflict is raging between independence-minded Georgians and the predominantly Moslem Ossetians, who advocate remaining a part of the Soviet Union.

Amid increasingly open speculation that Gorbachev’s economic and political problems will force him to resign, the Soviet leader has resorted to a familiar remedy: demanding more power. Last week in Moscow, he repeated his warning that the country was sliding towards catastrophe as he unveiled proposed anti-crisis measures to members of the Federation Council, an executive body that includes Kremlin officials and the leaders of the 15 republics. Gorbachev’s program, which he planned to present to the Soviet legislature this week, would give him the power to ban strikes and demonstrations during working hours until the end of the year.

It would also try to nudge the restive republics towards the chief objective of his embattled regime: the signing of a new union treaty that would define the powers of the Kremlin and the republics within a renewed confederation. To that end, presidential aides say, the anti-crisis program would penalize republics that balked at signing the treaty or continued to withhold contributions to the national budget by forcing them to pay for raw materials in hard currency.

That projected course of action could spark another confrontation between Gorbachev and his archrival, Boris Yeltsin, although the president of the Russian republic has recently moderated his attacks on Gorbachev. In place of his earlier calls for a political war with the federal government and demands for the Soviet leader’s resignation, Yeltsin has issued an appeal for businesslike co-operation between Russia and the Kremlin, based on a joint approach to a market economy and respect for republican sovereignty. In fact, despite the miners’ open support for Yeltsin, the Soviet Union’s most popular politician said that he might even ask striking miners to return to work in order to prevent the Russian—and the Soviet—economies from sinking further into chaos.

In any event, the protests in Byelorussia only added to Gorbachev’s problems. Until recently, the western republic of 10.4 million people had been one of the Kremlin's firmest allies and one of the least militant areas of the Soviet Union. But last week, in response to the price increases on April 2, about 50,000 demonstrators from at least 50 factories flooded into the centre of Minsk, the Byelorussian capital, with demands ranging from Gorbachev’s resignation to the nationalization of the Communist party’s vast holdings. The two-day protest ended only when the republican government agreed to meet leaders and discuss their demands. Declared Pravda, the Communist party newspaper: “Everything is in a mess in Byelorussia, which until recently seemed so stable, sensible and reliable. Now, passions are red hot.”

The miners’ strike clearly influenced the

Minsk protesters: some members of the Independent Union of Miners acknowledged that they had travelled from Ukraine to the Byelorussian capital to express their support for the demonstrations. And although miners have not forged a strong working-class movement along the lines of Poland’s Solidarity or produced a charismatic leader like Lech Walesa, a union that formed only last fall has already flexed its muscles by shutting down Soviet mines across the country. In Ukraine last week, where 50 out of 250 mines closed down, strike committee member Nikolai Volynko said that miners still have bitter memories of 1989, when nearly 500,000 miners ended a nationwide walkout only to see the Kremlin fail to keep its promises to improve the workers’ wretched conditions. Said Volynko: “They will not buy us for nonexistent sausages this time.”

Volynko is 36, a square-shouldered man with greying hair who has spent 13 years in the shafts that run below the wide, coal-dusted streets of Donetsk. Last week, he and other strikers met in a colliery hall adorned with heroic portraits of laborers and red banners exhorting the workers to dig more coal. But Volynko and other strikers, talking about what they called the appalling safety standards in the mines and substandard living arrangements aboveground, expressed their doubt that their lives would ever improve under Communist rule. “The Soviet Union,” said Volynko, “loses almost as many men in the coal mines in a given year as the army did when it was fighting in Afghanistan.” He added: “We have a saying that every million tons of coal costs a miner’s life, and in a bad year the price rises to three or four lives per million.”

Those blunt assessments are common in Donetsk, a practical, unlovely place that suffered heavy damage during the Second World War and, after the Red Army drove out the Nazi occupiers, was rebuilt into one of the world’s great metallurgical and mining centres. Donetsk is a city where Russians slightly outnumber native-born Ukrainians. And now, it is also split between strikers who have closed the Red Star mine and laborers at other mines and pits who are still extracting coal.

By the weekend, the miners had managed to avoid outright violence. But many strikers savagely criticized those workers who stayed on the job, describing them as scabs and strikebreakers who would reap the economic gains of the work stoppages without making any sacrifices. “Most people here support what we are doing,” said one striking worker. “If they did not, the Communist party would have quickly organized rallies and demonstrations against us, and they have not.”

But in a mine named after the socialist writer Maxim Gorky, workers finishing the evening shift defended their decision to continue digging coal. Valentin Baranetsk, a 54-year-old team leader with 30 years’ experience in the pits, brusquely dismissed the strike as irresponsible. “Nothing good will come of it,” said Baranetsk. “The government has no money to meet the strikers’ economic demands.” He added: “Everyone knows that miners live and

work in terrible conditions. But so do metalworkers and collective farm members. And once we get higher wages, they will demand them too, which can only lead to much higher inflation. These strikes can only lead to chaos.” Volynko, meanwhile, talked about a more pressing and personal concern: his family’s welfare. The strikers have received donations of money and food from sympathizers across the Soviet Union, including 300,000 rubles, or $590,000, from Russian workers. But last week, the strikers acknowledged that they were in severe financial difficulty as food costs mounted. In Volynko’s case, his wife, an architect, will soon have to support him and their 14year-old daughter as the family’s savings run out. Said Volynko: “She understands that we are fighting for freedom, not slices of meat.” Even so, Andrukhin, Volynko’s workmate and fellow strike committee member, paid a wry tribute to past achievements of the nowfailing Soviet system as he walked through a district of dilapidated, tin-roofed cottages. Said Andrukhin: “We have to toast Nikita Khrushchev because he built the five-storey apartment buildings you see everywhere when he was running the country. And without the foreign credits that Leonid Brezhnev obtained when he was leader, we would all have been half naked. Gorbachev? He gave us glasnost and had some bright ideas in the beginning. But now, he has lost his way and does not know what to do.” But Andrukhin had no words of praise for the run-down cottages that are still known locally as Hughesovsky barracks in memory of John Hughes, a 19th-century Welsh entrepreneur who built them to house laborers at his nearby mine and metalworks.

Near one three-room legacy of Hughes’s New Russia Co., Vladimir Melnyk, 31, stopped drawing water from a courtyard pump last week and savored his family’s imminent move to another apartment. Andrukhin dryly noted that Melnyk, his wife, Ludmilla, and their eight-year-old son had attained that goal after only seven years in the barracks, three short of the usual waiting period. And Melnyk acknowledged that he was looking forward to life with some modem conveniences: hot and cold running water and an indoor toilet. Gesturing towards the laundry-festooned courtyard behind him, Melnyk said: “City officials have told us that there is nothing wrong with these places. But all I know is that the roof leaks and it is hard living here in the winter.”

As he made his way back down Red Army Street, Andrukhin argued that such discontent had helped to convince the miners to renew their demands of 1989. But he added: “This time, it is different. Now, we need political change, too.” That sentiment clearly represents a growing, working-class vote of nonconfidence in the current Soviet leadership. In the seventh spring of perestroika and glasnost, increasing numbers of Gorbachev’s fellow citizens are exercising their freedom to demand a step that he has so far refused to take—giving way to someone else.

MALCOLM GRAY in Donetsk