Is this a dress rehearsal? For about a fortnight in May, Russia was partly paralyzed, with hundreds of trains stranded, as striking coal miners occupied railway lines, blocking traffic on the Trans-Siberian Railroad and on lines leading to the Caucasus. The strike began in the Far North, invaded the coal mines of Kuzbass and the whole of Siberia, then stretched southward to Rostov-on-Don. The miners were backed in many places by teachers, scientific researchers, students and the many workers who see no future in society as it is now run. The official explanation of the strike was the crippling, and by now chronic, Russian disease--the long-delayed payment of wages. But the workers' objective, judging by the slogans seen on Russian TV; had become political: The strikers were calling for the resignation of Yeltsin and his stooges.
To survive, the government had to yield. Two deputy prime ministers were sent to the main trouble spots--Kemerovo in Siberia and Rostov--with some money and the promise of more to come. They also released food and medical supplies as substitutes for the unpaid family allowances. For the moment it seems to have worked, or at least to have gained the government a respite, with trains once again being allowed to run. But for the new Prime Minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, the events of May were a catastrophic debut. The triumphant election of Gen. Aleksandr Lebed as Governor of the Krasnoyarsk territory revealed the depth of popular discontent with the regime. The sharp fall of shares on the Moscow stock exchange and the flight of foreign capital showed that when the financial crisis spreads, Russia is the first to be affected; and the 150 percent to which Kiriyenko was compelled to raise the interest rate played havoc with his economic calculations. To crown it all, he has provided no cover for the President: The protesters demanded not his but Yeltsin's political head.
The lesson the Russians are most likely to draw from these events is that only struggle pays. If you do not belong to the magic circle of the privileged, for whom the plum jobs are reserved--like Boris Berezovsky and Anatoly Chubais, who were ousted and then restored to new lucrative posts--you must strike and fight to get anything at all. The attempt to regain full control over private and state television to prevent this message from reaching the public will not succeed. Many analysts in Moscow are convinced that next time (and another revolt is inevitable) the protesters will not stop halfway. The most pessimistic think that if no genuine solution is provided quickly on a national scale, Russia will fall apart, like the Soviet Union in 1988-90. Then, you may remember, the striking miners were a factor in Yeltsin's rise.