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Meager Protest Turnout by Miners a Mirror Image of Their Low Spirits

Siberia: Coal workers were once in vanguard of Russians demanding a better deal. Now they fear losing their jobs.


PROKOPYEVSK, Russia — If anybody in Russia is mad enough to take to the streets, it should be the quarter of a million people trying to scrape by in this Siberian coal-mining town, where salaries haven't been paid for months and the government in far-off Moscow hasn't lived up to its promises for years.

"By the time things get better here, I'll be long dead," predicted Valentina Filimonova, a worker in a local mine who longs for the old days when she could vacation on Lake Baikal.

In 1989, the miners of Prokopyevsk went on strike--an act of supreme and almost unheard-of courage in what was then the Soviet Union--because they didn't have soap to wash up with at the end of their shifts.

Two years later, the men from shafts and strip mines across the Kuzbass region threw down their picks and pneumatic drills, hastening the political demise of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last Soviet president. This spring, the miners camped out by the thousands on the tracks of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, blocking trains for 10 days until officials in Moscow promised to pay them some of their overdue wages.

So why did just 6,000 people gather at the pedestal of the Vladimir I. Lenin statue here Wednesday morning and vote in a silent show of hands for Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's immediate resignation and changes in his economic "reforms"?

It's not that Yeltsin is beloved or popular--when Yevgeny Malkov, 38, a mine superintendent, called him "half-drunk and a half-wit," other employees getting ready for the 3 p.m. skeleton shift at the Koksovaya Mine smiled, and none disagreed. Filimonova, who for 20 years has handed Malkov and his men their alkaline lamps and safety kits before they descend into the mine, thinks the reason is the particularly Russian trait of terpeniye, or a sort of patient passivity.

"We'll put up with all this as long as we have to," said the small, gold-toothed woman, who, like the rest of Koksovaya's labor force, hasn't been paid for eight months. "I can't recall the last time I bought clothes. If I buy a sack of flour, I'm over the moon with happiness."

Once in the vanguard of demands for a better life and fairer deal for ordinary Russians, miners in the Kuzbass now seem demoralized by what's transpired over the past decade, fearful for their future--80,000 of the 180,000 local miners have lost their jobs in the past five years--and unsure of which politicians and parties to trust.

Many in this area 2,000 miles from the capital also have come to believe that the new, democratically chosen tenants of the Kremlin aren't any more sincere about dealing with their problems than the Communist Party bosses of old.

Sergei P. Mironenko, 45, a former coal cutter who works in the front office at another mine, has been coming to the miners' protests that are held by the Lenin statue once or twice a year--but says he doubts they do any good. And if he and his comrades are again ahead of the curve in Russia, that conclusion could spell trouble.

"The way it works in our country, our voice is very feeble," said Mironenko, who is making ends meet by borrowing from friends who are in debt themselves. "If we take things to the logical conclusion, I think there's going to be some sort of civil disobedience, or illegal actions."

As history demonstrates, even the Russians' well-known patience has an end. As a folk saying has it, "A Russian takes a long time to harness his horse, but he rides very fast."

Last May, the Kuzbass miners lifted their Trans-Siberian blockade, an illegal protest that the Railway Ministry claimed had snarled more than 600 trains and cost it $30 million. In exchange, the government promised to pay some of the back wages.

But almost five months later, people here haven't seen "a single kopeck," reported Vasily B. Popok, special correspondent for Kuzbass, the area's largest newspaper. It was only the latest in a string of unkept promises.

Not surprisingly, "workers have lost all confidence that the government will actually do something for them," said Viktor A. Bunin, head of a 21,000-member regional union of miners. "They only accept methods now that yield immediate results . . . like blocking traffic on the tracks."

So the low turnout at Wednesday's rallies up and down the 300-mile coal seam that is the geological spine of the Kuzbass may have been deceiving. In a region of 3.2 million people, a total of only 45,000 attended rallies in Prokopyevsk, the regional center of Kemerovo and other cities, police said. Unions put the overall turnout at 60,000 to 70,000 and claimed that 200,000 workers offered some show of support in factories and other workplaces.

Grigory T. Shalakin, who has reported on the Kuzbass for nearly two decades for what is now the Itar-Tass news agency, said the protests were the largest held in the region on a single day. Only the moderating influence of the regional governor, Aman G. Tuleyev, has restrained the discontented of the Kuzbass from "taking to the streets," Shalakin said.

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