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Soviet Miners Strike, Seek to End Communist Rule

July 12, 1990|ELIZABETH SHOGREN and JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

DONETSK, Soviet Union — Tens of thousands of Soviet coal miners, riled by the Kremlin's failure to deliver on its year-old pledge to ease their dreary lives and jobs, went on a 24-hour protest strike Wednesday to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov and an end to Communist Party rule.

"There will be no fundamental changes in our country until we take the party apparatchiki out of our country's leadership," said a disgruntled Vladimir Osmanov, a striker who ordinarily works almost 4,000 feet underground at a mine in this city in the eastern Ukraine.

Ignoring a personal plea from President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, mine workers also put down picks and power drills in Siberia and other Soviet coal-producing areas, staying off the job temporarily at about 200 shafts and pits nationwide.

In Donetsk, capital of the Donbass coal region of the Ukraine, about 4,000 miners, many wearing hats folded from newspapers to ward off the July sun, held a 12-hour anti-Communist rally on a square in front of the party's regional headquarters.

"The party should be immediately banished from the whole Soviet Union," Valentin Pukonin, 26, told the cheering crowd in this city of more than 1 million people. "We need to have a general strike of all workers in the country, not just miners."

"It is clear our economic demands cannot be met within the system we have, so we need a new government," said Igor Khokhlov, 42, another Donbass miner who had telltale smudges of black coal dust around his eyes.

The symbolic strike, which at some mines was scheduled to last for only two hours, was held on the first anniversary of last summer's crippling miners' walkout, the Soviet Union's first nationwide protest of its kind.

The temporary loss of about half the Soviet coal production at that time threatened the steel and power industries, and 500,000 miners went back to work when Ryzhkov's government formally promised them more job autonomy, better pay and more consumer products.

"We had reason to have faith a year ago," Osmanov said. "But the government doesn't listen to us, and now we no longer trust this government to change anything."

In a visible radicalization of their demands, the miners are trying to use the political clout they accumulated in their 1989 strike to hasten the country's transition to a multi-party system and loosen the Communist Party's steely grip on virtually every aspect of Soviet life.

"The working class has realized that things in the economy directly depend on political decisions, and they (now) insist on radical changes in this sphere," Soviet television news said Wednesday night in a not-unsympathetic report on two-hour protest strikes in the Karaganda coal area of Uzbekistan.

Miners in Donetsk and elsewhere demanded that the party give up its property, remove its party committees from state and government enterprises and relinquish its control over the military, police and the KGB.

Estimates varied on how many people went on strike in the Donbass, but the Tass news agency and other official media said the protest was nationwide, from coal seams at Vladivostok in the Soviet Far East to the Lvov district near the Polish border.

Speaking Wednesday morning at the Communist Party congress in Moscow, Gorbachev labeled the strike a flop, but that may have been based on initial assessments of the number of people taking part. Ryzhkov was also at the Kremlin meeting, and a delegate's attempt to have the congress formally express its lack of confidence in him was never put to a vote.

"Those who counted on something, who pushed and instigated--they failed," Gorbachev said. "There is no general strike. . . . Even in the Kuzbass district (of Siberia), where the hottest heads went in hopes of fanning fires in an already explosive situation, even there they assemble (only) 70 people at their rallies."

Members of the Donbass strike committee said about 400,000 workers from 141 of the almost 300 mines stayed out of the shafts, but Tass said that "far from all Donbass miners" backed the strike call and that only 20-odd collieries stopped digging coal.

However, a secretary of the Donetsk regional party committee said that by the end of the first two shifts Wednesday, coal production in the region had dropped by half. Of 121 mines in or near Donetsk, 66 were working at full capacity and 13 partially, the Communist official said. He did not have figures for the entire Donbass, which covers 10,000 square miles.

In the Kuzbass, about 2,150 miles east of Moscow, strike leaders said about 300,000 workers stayed away from 68 mines. According to authorities, 53 enterprises with 42,000 workers were brought to a standstill.

In the Pechora Basin north of the Arctic Circle, the third major coal-producing area affected, 11 of 30 pits near the city of Vorkuta joined in the strike, according to Tass.

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