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Strikes Hit Ukraine's Leaders

Coal miners cite economic decline, demand new parliament elections and referendum

A WAVE of strikes in the important Donbas coal-mining region in the southeastern part of this former Soviet republic has brought a long-simmering political crisis to a boil and threatens to put Ukraine on the brink of economic collapse.

Under pressure from the week-long strike, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk on June 15 asked the parliament to support the miners' demands for new parliamentary elections and a referendum on his rule. But the communist-dominated parliament, which has resisted economic reform as well, rejected this proposal. It did, however, leave the door open to reconsider the proposal soon.

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Tens of thousands of miners at more than 200 of the country's 240 coal mines have been on strike since June 7. Workers at large factories in the major industrial centers of eastern Ukraine, Kharkiv, and Donetsk, have declared solidarity strikes.

The powerful miners' strike committees, which played a key role in resisting Communist rule during the last days of the Soviet Union, are demanding not only economic concessions but major political change and greater economic autonomy for the Donbas region.

"We just don't see a future with any of the present government organs. They all must go," Vyacheslav Kuzmin, a leader of the Donetsk Strike Committee said in a telephone interview.

The miners share a widespread disappointment with the shrinking leadership of President Kravchuk, who ceded most day-to-day management of the economy to his Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma.

"Kravchuk has been so busy traveling abroad, arguing with Russia about dividing the Black Sea Fleet, and building an unnecessarily large army - while watching the parliament make decisions about so-called reforms at the expense of the people," Mr. Kuzmin said.

"We regard the president as politically impotent," he said. Black Sea fleet dispute

The challenge to Kravchuk's rule comes just before a key summit meeting, scheduled for June 17, with Russian President Boris Yeltsin to try to settle a new outbreak of tensions over the joint ownership of the Black Sea fleet. In the Russian-populated Crimean peninsula, where the fleet is based, demands for reunification with Russia are growing.

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Such views are not expressed in the Donbas or elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, a heavily industrialized area mostly populated by Russian-speaking people. But the strike wave is evidence that less than two years after they voted overwhelmingly for Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union, people in this region are disillusioned with what they now view as empty promises of economic prosperity from the Ukrainian leadership.

The political stalemate between the parliament and the government has hindered even moderate attempts at economic reform. Instead of riches, independence has brought a rapid decline in living standards, leaving most Ukrainians far worse off than people in neighboring Russia and other ex-Soviet republics.

In addition to new parliamentary and local elections, and a confidence vote on Kravchuk, the miners are demanding greater economic autonomy for the vital Donbas region. Their demands fall short of a call for separatism, a move that could prompt the Russians to back their brethren in eastern Ukraine.

"We're interested in greater regional self-administration for the Donbas, not separatism nor even the type of autonomy the Crimea has," Kuzmin said, referring to the mostly Russian-populated Crimean peninsula. "We contribute a large proportion of revenue to Ukraine and get almost nothing in return. Now we want to decide how much to give Kiev, not vice versa." Russian ties broken

The strikers blame Ukraine's leadership for disrupting the traditional trade links between Ukrainian and Russian industries by setting up difficult customs requirements for trade between the two former Soviet republics.

The strikes began after the latest wave of price hikes declared by the government on June 5 on a wide range of basic goods and services.

But Mr. Kuchma dismissed the economic issues, telling parliament June 15 that this is "a 100 percent political strike." He warned, however, that in two days the country's crucial heavy industry sector will come to a halt.

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