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Russian miners block trains in wage protest

Capitalist economy brings hunger, fears of collapse

By Andy McInerney

Angry Russian coal miners staged a ten-day blockade of the Trans-Siberian and North Caucasus railroads. The national protest, after a week of wildcat protests, immobilized more than 600 freight and passenger trains on the tracks across Russia. As of May 27 some of the protest blockades were continuing.

The blockade of Russia's main rail lines was not for a raise, not for better working conditions, but for the basic right to be paid.

The action exposed the depths to which conditions for Russian workers have sunk following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Russian government owes miners at least $600 million in back wages. Some miners have not been paid in two years.

Russian capitalism is in virtual collapse. Some have compared conditions today in Russia to those of the 1930s Great Depression in the United States.

Stock market falling, currency collapsing

The stock market has seemingly gone into a free-fall, down more than 50 percent on the year, the steepest drop of any market in the world.

The currency is spinning downward. On May 27, the Central Bank tripled its interest rate to a whopping 150 percent. The Central Bank's move in raising interest rates to shore up the collapsing ruble, Russia's currency, has the effect of paying foreign investors to exploit Russia's labor and wealth.

On May 22, Russian President Boris Yeltsin warned that the strikes "have obviously breached acceptable limits and rather than promoting an economic solution, are posing the serious threat of massive financial losses." Yeltsin is seen as a puppet of the U.S., and calls for his resignation soon joined demands for repayment. "The president heads a system that does not pay wages," one miner told the French News Agency on May 21.

By May 24, the government had persuaded many of the miners to end the blockades with partial payments. But other miners, like those at Inta in northern Siberia, refused the partial settlement.

Growing worker unrest

Miners are not alone in their protests. On May 20, at least 30,000 teachers marched in Moscow against low salaries and unpaid wages. Even when workers are lucky enough to get paid, the wages are barely enough to live.

"I earn $70 a month, which is not enough to feed myself-and I have a family," a young teacher complained.

Unions in Russia charge that the government owes $10 billion to workers in all industries in unpaid wages.

Amid the growing worker unrest, the vultures continued to circle. Facing a combined downturn in the Russian currency and the stock market, both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank jockeyed to deepen their vise-grip on Russia.

The World Bank is "ready to help with funds," said World Bank President James Wolfensohn, speaking in Moscow on May 21. The World Bank has loaned the Yelstin regime $10 billion in the last six years, including $1.3 billion to "restructure" the coal industry.

"One should give the last government [prior to April 1998] credit for the way it closed mines," Wolfensohn said.

The IMF is also scheduled to decide on releasing $700 million more in loans to Yeltsin.

Of course, these loans are not destined for the workers. The new prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, has vowed not to increase spending toward workers' needs-like paychecks-and instead pursue further "restructuring"-with more plant closings, more layoffs.

Chris Speckhard of the Alfa Capital investment bank in Moscow highlighted the concerns of foreign capital. "The political ramifications of continued strikes would be a lot more expensive than whatever money it takes to resolve the problem," he noted, "particularly given lingering comparisons between Russia and Indonesia."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress has voted nearly unanimously to impose sanctions against Russia. The reason is an allegation that Russia is helping Iran build Scud missiles, something the Russian government denies. In a report headlined "The Cold War is not over for U.S. lawmakers," Novosti news agency noted that the vote came within a month of the congressional vote approving the expansion of NATO.

Miners appeal for solidarity

The Russian miners have appealed for international solidarity. An open letter from the mine workers says, in part:

"We, the miners of the Kuzbass coal-mining region of Russia, appeal to you to express support for our action. It is already more than six months, and for some of our comrades still more, that we have not received money for the work done. The situation is so dramatic that there are cases of deaths from hunger and suicides from desperation. …

"That is why we decided to go on strike (some of our comrades are on hunger strike) in order to force Yeltsin and his government to resign. We have begun to block the Trans-Siberian railroad. Our comrades from Northern and Rostov-on-Don coal-mining regions are doing the same.

"We hope you will respond to our appeal and will send a message of solidarity. Messages can be faxed to the following address:

"Russia, Kemerovo region, fax: Russia code + (3842) 23-54-91 for Nikolay Osipov.

"Telegrams of support can be sent to: Nikolay Alexseevich Osipov, Russia, 650033, Kemerovo, ul. Gurievskaya, dom 15, kv. 18."

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