The Russian government promised Saturday to pour $2.2 billion into the coal mining industry, ending a two-day strike and resolving - at least for the time being - a potentially damaging, election-year labor dispute.
A parallel strike by 880,000 miners in Ukraine continued, and leaders of Russia’s Union of Coal Industry Workers said they would strike again if the government reneged on its promises.
“We’ll wage a political strike,” warned Gennady Mikhailets, a deputy head of the miners union. “And our demand will be the government’s resignation.”
Confronted by Russia’s largest and most powerful union, the government quickly gave in to the miners’ demands for back wages and bigger subsidies for the ailing state-owned industry.
“We’re doing everything we promised,” Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said Saturday as he left for a vacation in the southern city of Sochi. He said the Finance Ministry had already begun disbursing back wages.
Russian and Ukrainian miners went on strike Thursday, in the largest walkout in the former Soviet Union since its 1991 collapse. That year, a nine-week coal miners’ strike helped propel Yeltsin to the presidency and force Mikhail Gorbachev from power.
Yeltsin is expected to run for a second term in the June 16 presidential election and a long miners’ strike could cripple his campaign. Once considered allies, miners now resent Yeltsin for closing mines, slashing state subsidies and failing repeatedly to pay wages on time.
The decision to end the strike came in a narrow 6-5 vote during an overnight meeting of the miners’ union, and miners in many Russian regions were back at work Saturday, said union chief Vitaly Budko.
“We expect all miners to stop the strike,” he said.
He said most of the promised $2.2 billion would come from the federal budget, but nearly $500 million would come from foreign loans.
It’s a risky deal for Yeltsin, who faces pressure from other unhappy workers and struggling industries.
“After the miners get this money, everybody will say, ‘Why don’t we go on strike to get what we want?”’ said Sergei Markov, an analyst for the Carnegie Foundation in Moscow.
“That means that right before the elections, we will see great disorder,” he said. “It’s very dangerous for Yeltsin.”