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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 October, 2003, 21:28 GMT
Gloomy future for Russia's miners

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC Moscow reporter

As Russia was absorbing news of the dramatic rescue of 11 men from the Zapadnaya mine in Novoshakhtinsk, reports were coming in of a second mining accident.

Group of miners emerging
The miners at Zapadnaya had not been paid in months
Methane gas exploded in a mine in Partizansk, in the Russian Far East, killing five men.

The explosion is the fifth serious mining disaster this year.

Russian media reports calculate that 19 people have been killed since January; one man is missing and dozens have been injured.

Most of the accidents have been caused by methane gas explosions.

The total is lower than last year, when mining unions say 68 men died on the job.

Nevertheless the statistics are giving serious cause for concern.

Investigations

On Wednesday, President Putin weighed in. He used a broadcast on state television to call for a thorough government investigation into both accidents.

"Unfortunately events of this nature are becoming systematic," the president said.

Criminal investigations have already been launched into both the flood at Zapadnaya and the explosion in Partizansk.

Private companies don't care for maintaining mines or paying wages. They just want to make money fast
Ruben Badalov, Union of Miners
On Tuesday Deputy Prosecutor Sergei Fridinsky told the Interfax news agency that the Zapadnaya management team are likely to be charged with failing to ensure the safety of their employees.

Local union men say they have been warning of danger for months.

Zapadnaya pit was flooded when an underground lake burst its banks and broke through a mine shaft.

According to the union, the water should never have been allowed to collect in the first place.

They also point out that mine managers failed to react when the lake flooded for the first time in February.

Warning bell

But mine owner Lev Stroyakovsky deflected blame elsewhere.

He told the Russian daily Izvestia that the lake formed when neighbouring mines were abandoned.

Mr Stroyakovsky believes it was the government who shut them down that should have been responsible for maintenance.

Russia is a gas country, but we want it to be a coal country
Analyst Anatoly Skryl
In Moscow, independent mining unions say the latest accidents point to a wider crisis in the coal industry.

"The accident at Zapadnaya should serve as a warning bell to the government and everyone involved in coal mining," believes Ruben Badalov a representative of the Union of Miners.

"Private companies don't care for maintaining mines or paying wages. They just want to make money fast."

Nine in 10 Russian mines are now privately owned and state subsidies disappeared in the late 1990s as part a major restructuring programme.

Decline in safety

Unions say the industry has since slumped into a desperate state.

Rather than funding production, federal money has been redirected to finance the closure of dozens of unprofitable pits and retraining programmes for miners.

Relatives of the miners this week
Thousands of Russians have no alternative to the mines
When subsidies were withdrawn, the government created a programme offering incentives to attract potential investors to the industry.

But unions say only the bigger and better-off mines have profited, whilst smaller pits continue to struggle.

And shortfalls in financing have led to a disastrous decline in safety.

Most of Russia's mines are over 60 years old and are extremely deep so safety problems are compounded by a higher concentration of methane gas - frequently the cause of explosions.

Unpaid

Coal sector analyst Anatoly Skryl points to another key problem for the industry as a whole.

"Russia is a gas country," Anatoly explains, "but we want it to be a coal country."

Whilst the gas sector remains heavily subsidised the coal sector is unable to compete.

Anatoly Skryl says almost half of all Russia's now privately-owned coal companies fail to turn a profit as a result.

So the coal industry is hoping for a boost as Russia negotiates to join the WTO and is forced to raise the price of gas.

Until then the main aim for most miners is simply to survive.

Many have not been paid for months. Workers at Zapadnaya had been working for nothing since March in a telling indication of mine finances.

But like thousands across Russia the men of Novoshakhtinsk have little alternative to the pits. There are few other places locally to seek work.

Now Zapadnaya has been flooded and two neighbouring mines are at risk from the floodwater - prospects for the town's coal miners look even more gloomy.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Steve Rosenberg
"They were rescued just in time from their underground tomb"



SEE ALSO:
Mystery and joy as miners emerge
29 Oct 03  |  Europe
Blast hits second Russian mine
29 Oct 03  |  Europe
In pictures: Russian mine drama
27 Oct 03  |  Photo Gallery
Rescuers reach flooded mine
28 Oct 03  |  Europe


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