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Perestroika in the Pits

COMPLAINTS from Soviet coal miners have piled up for years, by the government's own admission. But extreme shortages of basics like sugar and soap have now combined with longstanding unhappiness over working and living conditions to spark widespread strikes. In the age of perestroika, the miners want more than attention to physical needs. Demands include self-management of their mines, an end to privileges for Communist Party and government bureaucrats, and even a stop to Soviet development aid for the third world.

Some conservatives in the party doubtless view the strikers' militancy as intolerable in a system that glorifies the ``worker.'' They may push for force to put down the strikes. But Mikhail Gorbachev is likely to see the strikes as another opportunity to get perestroika - his retooling of the Soviet economy - off dead center.

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The government has made some concessions on wages, and it has shipped off extra sugar and soap to the coal regions. But there are clear limits to what can be done along these lines. Transferring scarce commodities, after all, amounts to shifting shortages from one place to another.

Gorbachev is probably more than willing, however, to address strikers' political demands, shake up local bureaucracies, and put management decisions in new hands. Intransigent mid-level bureaucrats have been road blocks to perestroika right along.

Striking miners, recognizing that the government can't do much economically and appreciating political changes, may thus be mollified. Or they may not. The economic discontent runs deep.

Every Gorbachev move is a high-wire act of sorts. And the suspense is only heightened when one sensitive move - resolving the strikes - has to be combined with another, perhaps even more demanding maneuver - quelling continued ethnic strife in the Caucasus region.

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