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International Business : Russian Miners, Like So Many Canaries, Risk Their Lives for Coal : Labor: Perilous, unhealthy conditions--and late paychecks--have led to strikes. The unrest could help undermine the rule of President Boris N. Yeltsin.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

More than half a mile underground, Vladimir M. Pogoreyuv slogged through water up to his calves, careful not to touch the naked 600-volt wire running just inches above his head along the roof of the Maiskaya mine.

“I’m wearing rubber boots, so even though we’re standing in water it probably wouldn’t kill me if I were to accidentally touch it,” said the 47-year-old miner in Russia’s DonBass coal region, about 450 miles south of Moscow.

Russia’s coal miners, whose angry strikes four years ago sped the Soviet Union toward collapse, are again restless. Spontaneous, patchy strikes have flared up across Russia--a trend that union leaders say will accelerate through the hot summer months.

Such strikes could undermine the already unpopular rule of President Boris N. Yeltsin, as they did Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1989, when one mine’s walkout over a soap shortage widened overnight into a Kremlin-shaking national strike.

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Today miners have soap, but their government paychecks arrive from three to six months late. “A miner has just two joys: his hot shower and his paycheck,” Pogoreyuv said. “The government has yet to learn not to mess with either of them.”

But late paychecks are not the only problems in Russia’s coal industry.

The truth is that miners are taking on increasing dangers to mine coal that no one needs. Communism has fallen, but the coal industry remains stolidly and unapologetically Soviet: Health, safety--even profits--all fall by the wayside in the manic race to fulfill the plan.

The Maiskaya mine is considered one of Russia’s best and safest. It is free of methane, a volatile gas often trapped among coal veins that can explode if exposed to even a spark. Maiskaya is 2,800 feet deep--about average in Russia but three times deeper than the typical U.S. mine.

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The calf-deep water in some shafts is so negligible by Russian standards that the union boasts Maiskaya is free of flooding, another chronic danger.

But the mine’s narrow corridors are lined with bare high-voltage wires, and are often blocked by overturned wagons and old equipment. Miners work without earplugs, safety goggles or masks and with an inadequate supply of chains, posts for mine supports and even light bulbs.

As in Soviet days, workers are given production targets. How much miners earn is tied to whether they meet or exceed that goal.

That system encourages obvious risks.

“We’ve had cases where greedy miners hang their coats over the methane detectors to hide them, and then trust in the Lord to protect them (from an explosion),” said Lidiya O. Shagalina, a representative of PIER, a U.S.-funded organization that advises the Russian coal industry on restructuring.

That same production-at-any-cost mania keeps miners gnawing at exhausted veins.

“There used to be a slogan that said, ‘More coal for the Motherland!’ We still follow it,” Shagalina said. “There is a Soviet law still on the books that you cannot leave known coal reserves unmined, that you must extract the very last kilogram, no matter the cost or the danger. We have mines where shafts pursue coal veins at nearly 90-degree slopes--almost vertically--and people still work in them!”

According to statistics first released in 1990, about 400 workers die each year in mines throughout the former Soviet Union. Trade unions say a rule of thumb is that one miner dies for every 1 million tons of coal extracted--a safety record 10 times worse than that of U.S. mines.

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Last year more than 200 of Russia’s 500,000 miners died in accidents, according to Eduard A. Kinsler, deputy chief of Russia’s Independent Union of Miners. Many more suffer from life-shortening injuries and respiratory illnesses. The average miner lives to about 50, Kinsler said.

Miners cite such stark facts to demand special treatment. And they get it: 66 days of paid vacation, early retirement at 50 (a decade earlier than the national retirement age), and an average monthly wage of $100, much higher than the national average of $67.

The industry receives massive subsidies from the government, more than any other sector except agriculture. In 1994, coal mining subsidies were equal to more than 1.4% of Russia’s GDP.

So why, miners ask, are salaries always months late?

The answer is that RosUgol, the Russian national coal company, uses the subsidies not to pay workers or restructure the industry but to keep each mine, no matter how inefficient, digging away.

But the subsidies cannot last forever. When they go, a World Bank study argues, a free market will support just half of Russia’s mining jobs. Russia’s demand for coal will fall--in part due to deepening recession, in part to a worldwide move toward gas and oil--to half of 1990’s levels by the century’s end, the study says.

The bank proposes firing a third of all miners and closing about 100 mines over the next three to five years. Subsidies--plus a $500-million loan from the bank--could ease the pain of layoffs with generous severance pay and job training.

Such “shock therapy” is a tough sell. For example, the bank criticizes the practice of simultaneously paying the same man both a salary and a pension--which RosUgol does for 20% of its miners. Firing those quasi-retirees, the bank argues, would be a giant step forward.

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