While the self-proclaimed “Lugansk People’s Republic” is celebrating its six years of existence under economic ruin, a strike wave has been spreading through the mines of the Lugansk region in parallel to strikes in Crimea. Strikes in the Donbass are still spreading to new mines today, but they are being suppressed without any repercussions in the international media. Let us see in detail where these strikes come from and what is happening in the mines of Lugansk.
The great Russian business of the Donbass mines
Before the war between Russia and Ukraine, the mines had been either under Ukrainian state ownership (Luganskugol and Antratsit companies) or the property of tycoons such as Rinat Akhmetov, owner of the Shakhtar Donetsk soccer team. From 2014 onwards, some mines were expropriated and nationalized by the new republics, while others were incorporated in the South Ossetian registered company Vneshtorgservis.
This company is central to Russian business in the Donbass, its status as a registered Ossetian company allows it to evade US sanctions while buying up all the coal production in Donetsk and Lugansk at paltry prices and selling its production at more than three times the purchase price to Russian industries, making huge profits. The company “informally” owns a large part of the allegedly state-owned Donbass mines and is linked to the Russian security services, to the extent that it can afford to threaten the local Donbass leaders. Aleksandr Zakharchenko, former head of state of Donetsk, was mysteriously killed after he opposed extending Vneshtorgservis’ control over several mines.
For the workers this has meant nothing more than a spiral of pauperization. While Russian television celebrated new production records in the Donbass mines last year, prices in the region shot up to levels comparable to those in Moscow. However, salaries are still very low. Miners earn th equivalent of between 150 and 200 dollars a month if they accept working in poor conditions. If they complain about their working conditions or try to get sick leave, they have to choose between being fired or transferred to another section of the mine where they are paid 15 dollars a month.
The number of miners in the region dropped by half (44,800) after the war between Russia and Ukraine, and last year’s reorganizations reduced it even further: 34,000. Under these conditions, a large number of Donbass workers are forced to work in Russia for low wages. This spring, further closures and layoffs were announced, which finally exhausted the miners’ patience.
A wave of mining strikes in Lugansk
The strikes began at the end of April at Lugansk’s largest mine, the Komsomolskaya. The miners locked themselves underground and demanded to be paid their overdue wages. The state managed to convince the miners that they would be paid their overdue wages and the miners returned to work. But the wages were not paid in full and the miners of the Nikanor-Novaya mine in Zorinsk, the same ones which had been featured on Russian television as an example of mining production on the previous year, went on strike in early May. At the end of the strike, the miners were paid the overdue wages of October and November 2019, but have not been paid anything else since then. On top of that, last week 32 miners from Nikanor-Novaya were finally fired for going on strike , enraging the inhabitants of the region.
The Komsomolskaya miners, finding themselves in a similar situation, went on strike again on June 5th and locked themselves up underground. This time they ignored the state mediators and do not intend to leave until they are assured of their overdue wages. Groups of workers and neighbours from the region began to protest against the situation in the mines:
It’s no secret that Lugansk, like Donetsk, is reaching the bottom of the economic and social well. There are huge amounts of wage arrears, companies closing down and the threat of total desolation and depopulation of the cities of the republics. There is already a second underground strike in a mine in the Republic of Lugansk (128 miners are underground), in an attempt to assert their rights and their disagreement with state policy. What has been the reaction of the “leaders” of the republics – to investigate the thieving millionaires, to punish and fire the officials who did not know how to manage well? No, the answer has been suppression and persecution. “Blocking” and distorting the media, punishing those who disagree and liquidating the Donbass industry.
State forces have arrested several spokespersons at gunpoint for these complaints in the last two days. Twenty-one people, of whom 17 are still in detention today, were interrogated and tortured.
Meanwhile, the administration of the Komsomolskaya mine cut off the light, water and ventilation of the mine last night, with the strikers inside. The local public prosecutor’s office has managed to get the administration to turn the mine back on. The workers of the Frunze and V.V. mines are trying to go on strike at this very moment, but the Frunze mine has been surrounded by military units and both declared “under quarantine”, an excuse under which the army has been deployed on the roads and accesses. Workers at the Belorechenskaya mine have tried to contact and coordinate with the Komsomolskaya. The situation in the Donbass mines remains unsettled, but an extension and a move towards a mass strike cannot be excluded.