05 грудня 2011

State, Society and Protest under Post-Communism: Ukrainian Miners and Their Defeat

While much attention has been devoted to the alleged failure of post-communist transformation to generate popular protests in Eastern Europe, less attention has been paid to the exploration of existing examples of disruptive social contention in the region. This paper examines one of the most militant and prolonged cases of protest in Eastern Europe - the Donbas miners’ movement in Ukraine. The miners have succeeded in influencing the state and governing authorities by the means of contentious collective action. The miners’ movement has, nevertheless, failed to achieve its aims. This paper argues that it is the specific dynamics of contentious politics under post-communism rather than the lack of violent protest that explains the failure of the miners’ social movement.

By: Vlad Mykhnenko
Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, University of Cambridge
e-mail: vm222@cam.ac.uk

Paper for the Political Studies Association-UK 50th Annual Conference 10-13 April 2000, London

* * *

Why did Central and Eastern Europeans protest less about the brutal social conditions of systemic change than the people of Latin America had a decade earlier? How did it happen that less disruptive forms of protest emerged as dominant social responses to economic grievances?” asks a recently published volume on patience in post-communist societies (Greskovits 1998). Leaving the book’s answer aside, one might ask, alternatively, what happened when Eastern Europeans did protest? How have their opponents reacted to disruptive rather than “stabilising” forms of protest? Are we really witnessing the birth of civil society where “it is not clear who is boss” (Gellner 1996) or the old boss is still in place?

To initiate a discussion vis-à-vis the problems above, this paper focuses on one of the most militant examples of post-communist contentious politics – the movement of the Donbas miners in Ukraine. This social movement was born in 1989, when over 500,000 Soviet miners went on strike. The miners’ action soon became a symbol of the emerging civil society – that is, a group or mass of people who can check and counterbalance the state (Gellner 1996). In the “hot summer” of 1989, the Communist party capitulated to the triumphant miners. The Soviet state collapsed soon afterwards. Yet ten years after their victory, the spirit of depression has hovered over the Donbas miners.

Notwithstanding the justice of their cause and countless waves of disruptive protest, the Donbas miners have failed to achieve their goal. The miners’ movement did challenge the state. Nevertheless, the outcome of this challenge has lagged far behind the expectations generated after the miners’ symbolic victory in 1989. The aim of this paper is therefore to understand why this might be the case. This paper will examine first the basic properties of the Donbas miners’ movement, before turning to the evolution of its contentious politics. This paper will then consider possible explanations for the apparent failure of the miners’ movement. In the conclusion, this paper will discuss the relative weight of the state, the polity and civil society under post-communism. It is argued that the dynamics of contentious politics rather than the alleged patience or apathy of Eastern Europeans provide a better insight into the absence of widespread popular unrest under post-communism.

Donbas miners’ movement

Basic properties

Social movements are defined by Tarrow as “collective challenges, based on common purposes and social solidarities, in sustained interaction with elites, opponents, and authorities” (1998: 4). Such a sustained interaction leads to shifts within movements and to changes in their basic characteristics. Therefore, before moving towards the interaction generated by the Donbas miners, we should briefly examine the historical and socio-economic context of their movement at its initial stage, that is, before the movement was actually born in the sequences of contention. Following the concept of della Porta and Diani (1999: 14-16), four characteristic aspects of the miners’ movement need special attention: (1) informal interaction networks, (2) shared beliefs and solidarity, (3) collective action focusing on conflicts, (4) use of protest.

Historical environment and informal networks

The initial development of the Donbas was similar to that of the Ruhr area in Germany or Upper Silesia in Poland. The industrialisation of the region began after the discovery of hard coal. As early as 1917, the Donbas was producing 87 percent of the Russian Empire’s coal output, 76 percent of pig iron, 57 percent of steel and more than 90 percent of coke (Afonin 1990: 45). After the Bolshevik revolution and Stalin’s industrialisation, the Donbas remained the largest producing area of coal, iron and steel in Ukraine and one of the world’s major metallurgical and heavy-industrial complexes (see Table 1).

For centuries, the area of the Donbas was an empty field. Industrial revolution and Stalin’s Great Terror opened the region to massive migration. People were attracted to the Donbas by the region’s vast employment opportunities as much as by its image of a “safe haven for fugitives” (Kuromiya 1998). The Donbas eventually became a highly urbanised and densely populated “melting pot” of various ethno-linguistic groups.2 Nonetheless, over 98 percent of Donbas inhabitants recognise Russian or Ukrainian as their mother tongues (Itogi Vsesoiuznoi perepisi 1993a: 32-3; 44-5). Donbas population of about 8.2 million people is an overlapping mixture of ethnic Ukrainians (51 percent) and ethnic Russians (44 percent) (Goskomstat SSSR 1991: 80, 82). Due to the prolonged powerlessness of the Ukrainian cultural tradition, over four-fifths of the Donbas population are Russian speakers (Smith and Wilson 1997: 847, 854-864). Therefore, the region has been widely regarded as the Eastern pole in a cultural identity cleavage claimed to divide the country along the “Western Ukraine - Eastern Ukraine” ethno-linguistic, religious, economic and historical axis (Wilson 1993; Birch and Zinko 1996; Solchanyk 1994; Wilson 1995; Arel and Khmelko 1996; Smith and Wilson 1997; Shulman 1999).

Another particular feature of the Donbas is its social-class structure. In general, the region has been a base for over 23 percent of Ukraine’s industrial labour force. During the 1989 Soviet census, 70 percent of the Donbas inhabitants were classified as working-class (workers); a quarter of the population were identified as white-collar personnel (public servants); and only 5 percent were classified as peasants (collective farmers) (Itogi Vsesoiuznoi perepisi 1993b: 16).

Coal mining accounted for 21 percent of the region’s industrial output (Heohrafichna entsyklopediia Ukraïny 1989: 355). In 1989, about 35 percent of the Donbas industrial labour force were employed by 254 coal mines and mining-related firms (Zastavnyi 1990: 262; Reshetilova et al. 1997: 5). Working in extremely dangerous conditions, the Donbas miners developed close informal networks of reliance and socialisation. Common cultural traditions facilitated the extension of miners’ informal interaction networks beyond their working place. In general, the informal ties observed among the Donbas miners are similar to those that used to exist among coal miners and their communities in other parts of the world (on coal mining communities and networks see Samuel 1977; Dix 1988; Warwick and Littlejohn 1992; Carswell and Roberts 1992).

Shared beliefs and solidarity

The main belief shared by the Donbas miners was based on the materialist understanding of their work (Siegelbaum and Walkowitz 1995; Seigelbaum 1997: 13-14). In particular, they believed in the Marxian labour theory of value, where the quantity of labour used up in the manufacture of a product determines its real, fundamental and immutable value. With the beginning of democratisation in the USSR, the miners’ belief was increasingly related to a feeling of social injustice:

The problem, according to many miners, was that people were not getting paid according to their labour: those that worked hard, and produced something of material value, were being cheated out of its worth, while those that distributed this wealth, were enriching themselves without real work. The miners soon drew a connection between their sense of exploitation and the state’s ability, through the self-appointed communist party, to distribute wealth as it saw fit. Indeed, the class-based anger directed at managers within the enterprise was soon aimed towards a system the miners believed to be exploiting them (Crowley 1995: 59).

Every worker feeds five to seven managers,” one miner remarked in 1989. “We are Negros under slavery! There is no respect for us. No one listens to our demands!” (Kostiukovskii 1990: 63-64).

The perception of social injustice and exploitation prevalent among the miners was fostered by horrifically unsafe working conditions. In 1988, 80 percent of the Ukrainian coal mines were over 40 years old (Reshetilova et al. 1997: 103). Eighty-seven percent of collieries in the Donbas were more than 800 metres below the surface with temperatures exceeding 30°C. Over 20,000 miners were working even deeper underground under extreme heat pressures. The share of manual labour in coal production exceeded 57 percent (Rusnachenko 1993: 66).

The fatality rate in the Donbas coal industry became the highest in the world (BBC, 12 March 2000). In the late 1980s, there were four deaths and six serious injuries for every one million ton of coal mined in the region (Sarzhan 1998: 163). In the 1990s, one miner was killed at work every day (Table 2). At some mines the fatality rate was 15 to 20 deaths for every one million ton of coal (Burnosov 1995: 29; 31). Given the persistent underinvestments into the industry, the number of industrial accidents has been growing (Rusnachenko 1993: 66. For comparisons see Siegelbaum 1997: 23). A deep feeling of social injustice and exploitation, the hazardous working conditions, combined with a much-celebrated heroic image of miners, resulted in a strong sense of occupational solidarity.

Conflictual issues

Despite celebrating miners as “quintessential proletarians”, state socialism was unable to adequately compensate them for their hard labour and human losses. In terms of monetary gratification, the miners were among the best-paid professions in the USSR since World War II (Friedgut and Siegelbaum 1990: 2; Seigelbaum 1997: 5). Underground workers were also provided with fairly high pensions as early as the age of fifty. Nevertheless, few miners have been able to reach the pension age. In the early 1990s, the average life expectancy for the main coal mining occupations was about thirty-eight years (Siegelbaum and Walkowitz 1995: 121-122). Being paid officially for a six-hour working day, miners worked, in fact, for ten to eleven and sometimes even sixteen hours a day (Rusnachenko 1993: 67). A large number of coal workers were not provided with appropriate housing accommodation and lived in poor sanitary conditions. The predominance of “smoke-stack” industries in a highly urbanised area led to large-scale environmental devastation. Moreover, with the beginning of perestroika, food and goods shortages became widespread and queues appeared to be endless. The lack of consumer goods, according to one 1989 survey, headed the list of miners’ grievances (Rusnachenko 1993: 66-67; Friedgut and Siegelbaum 1990: 14-16). A labour conflict was emerging:

Working deep below the surface, where temperatures and concentrations of methane gas were high, and frequently compelled to use “grandpa’s methods” (that is, jack hammers and shovels) to extract coal, Donbas workers had the distinct sense that “Moscow” did not care how much hard labour they expended or how many lives were sacrificed in the process (1997: 5-6).

Use of protest

Della Porta and Diani have suggested that protest reflects a view of politics as a power struggle, in which involvement in civil society is not limited to elections (1999: 176). The participation in elections did not provide citizens under state socialism with a possibility to influence political decision-making in the country. Protest, thus, was the only resource for politically impoverished miners.

The main purpose of the emerging contention was miners’ endeavour to obtain “normal” or “civilised life”. According to some observers, what the miners call “normal life” is Western or American(ised) mass media, video or billboard images of affluence ranging “from Disneyland to Pittsburgh” (Walkowitz 1995: 160, 174, 176; Siegelbaum 1997: 13). To be sure, there never was a coherent picture of what may constitute a “normal life”. Some naïveté with regard to the “civilised West” has existed among various social groups in Ukraine and other post- communist countries. Nevertheless, the hazardous situation in the Donbas coal industry has made it simple what can be regarded as reasonable living and working conditions:

People live to be just thirty-eight years old ... [But] people’s dreams are different. My kids dream of being able to live in an apartment, in normal conditions […] We want our kids to live like human beings. We don’t want luxuries or excesses, just to have some certainty about tomorrow. We want people to lead normal lives, to have acceptable, decent working conditions. This is all we are striving for. We don’t want anything else (interview with Donets’k City strike committee, committee, May 1991, in Siegelbaum and Walkowitz 1995: 122).

The opportunity to work and earn money was considered to be among the main elements of the “normal life” (interview with the Samofalov family, 1992, in Siegelbaum and Walkowitz 1995: 194). In turn, the achievement of “normal life” was never restricted to saving jobs in the declining coal industry:

[T]he miners pay for their wages with their blood […] We don’t advocate preserving the coal enterprises of the Donba[s] at any cost […] We object to miners working in those dangerous zones. We would agree to close down the mines, but the people who work there should have the opportunity to be retrained so that they could work in some other industry. What we won’t agree to, is that all the mines should be closed down and all the miners become unemployed (interview with Yurii Makarov, 1992, in Siegelbaum and Walkowitz 1995: 145).

Working-class discontent in the Donbas became apparent at the early stage of Gorbachev’s perestroika, democratisation and glasnost’. In 1987-1988, there were several local collective actions, “refusals to work” and hunger strikes at some Donbas enterprises (Burnosov 1995: 29). In 1988, a central newspaper of the official all-Ukrainian Trade Unions published workers’ complaints about the lack of any economic progression at their enterprises (Kuzio and Wilson 1994: 105). By the spring of 1989, the miners’ contentious action has included about twelve brief local strikes and hundreds of telegrams, letters and petitions demanding enterprise independence and higher wages (Rusnachenko 1993: 68). During a visit to Donets’k in June 1989, Gorbachev himself was warned about miners’ discontent (Friedgut and Siegelbaum 1990: 8). All the warnings appeared to be unsuccessful.

Cycles of contention

By the late 1980s, the Donbas miners had acquired all the basic components needed for a collective contentious action. Miners perceived state socialism - “the system” - as their collective challenge. They recognised the existence of exploitation as their shared belief and the strive for the “normal life” as their common purpose. Oppressive working conditions, high levels of occupational density as well as existing rituals of celebrating “the heroes of labour” forged the miners’ solidarity.

Mobilisation: 1989-1991

The first wave of contention materialised in the summer strike of 1989. The strike started at a single mine in the Kuzbass3 city of Mezhdurechensk. From Siberia, industrial action expanded to all other coalfields in the Soviet Union. In the Donbas, the strike was initiated on 15 July 1989 also by a single mine. Soon, 173 out of 226 Donbas collieries went on strike. The overall Kuznets Coal Basin (byname Kuzbass) is located in southwestern Siberia.

Demands of the miners were articulated by openly elected mine and city strike committees. The strike was triggered by frustrated expectations, arbitrariness of authorities, lawlessness and anxiety that perestroika was passing the miners by with no improvement in living standards (Friedgut and Siegelbaum 1990: 13; see also Zabastovka 1989: 95; Kostiukovskii 1990). A sociological survey conducted among the striking Donbas miners reported that:

people were tired of waiting for promises to be fulfilled, that they had felt freed from ‘serfdom’ by glastnost’, that fear had vanished, thinking awakened, and that the media had encouraged a popular rejection of the bureaucracy. Significantly, 50 per cent of respondents added that professional solidarity played a part in their motivation (as cited in Friedgut and Siegelbaum 1990: 13-14).

The emphasis of the miners was put on economic demands. The most radical among them was for full economic and legal autonomy of mining enterprises. The miners also demanded improvements in pay, vacation, pension, work, housing and various welfare conditions. Some strike committees succeeded in purging mine management as well as Party and municipal officials. Nevertheless, the miners produced mainly economic, welfare-related demands and not anti-communist slogans. To make their demands publicly justified, the miners rebuffed “outsiders,” the emissaries of intelligentsia opposition groups from Kiev and Western Ukraine, who had tried to turn the strike into a political struggle for Ukrainian independence.

Most observers have stressed that the Party line was against the strike (Friedgut and Siegelbaum 1990: 22-23; Rusnachenko 1993: 73). Local authorities and some mine managers tried to stop the spread of the strike around the region by threatening and provoking the workers. Although the majority of the region’s population fully supported the miners’ action, the public opinion constructed by central mass media considered the miners as being already “over-privileged” and selfish. The miners’ demands were satisfied only after Mikhail Gorbachev supported them in several public statements (Burnosov 1995: 32; see also Zabastovka 1989: 5-11). The miners also received the widely publicised support from Boris El’tsin and members of the USSR Supreme Soviet elected from the Donbas (see Zabastovka 1989: 22, 95). The 1989 strike produced an emerging sense of civic empowerment:

In every sphere, the conviction grew that the worker should have a direct and clear input into the political system, and that the old system that had proved so corrupt and hypocritical must be radically changed (Friedgut and Siegelbaum 1990: 19).

The civic competence of the miners grew further with the gradual decline of central authorities and de-legitimisation of Gorbachev reforms. The Donbas miners did not dissolve their strike committees, which were transformed into standing institutions. Further institutionalisation and radicalisation of the miners’ movement followed the 1989 strike. The strike commentators predicted, however, that “unless miners forge links with workers in other industries and further develop their new-found sense of civic competence, they will be outmanoeuvred by the forces of rationalisation, and their victory will have been short-lived” (Friedgut and Siegelbaum 1990:32).

To initiate co-operation with Ukrainian intelligentsia, shortly after the July 1989 strike, a delegation of Donbas miners attended the inaugural congress of the Ukrainian Popular Movement, Rukh. The delegation openly declared their struggle to be not purely economic but also political. The lack of understanding between workers and national intelligentsia was said to be caused by the “divide and rule” policy of the Communist party-controlled media (Kuzio and Wilson 1994: 106). “We drank before, they pushed bottles in front of us. Enough!” said one of the miners. “We need to learn. Organise us lectures. Only not “schools of young Communists” – we need legal, economic and political knowledge” (Ibid: 105).

No “lectures” were organised. Nevertheless, the miners’ movement was drifting to the open disapproval of the Communist party rule. The First and the Second All-Union Congresses of Miners, held in Donets’k in June and October 1990 respectively, became political rather than trade-unionist events. Resolutions adopted by the First Congress accused the Communist party and the central government of blocking transition to market and democracy (Burnosov 1995: 41-42). The miners called for the resignation of the Soviet government and organised several strikes and rallies to support their political demands. In July 1990, about 256 mining, steel and transport enterprises hold one-day political strike supporting the resolutions of the congress (Sarzhan 1998: 167). Donbas miners began to withdraw from the Communist party en masse.

During the Second Congress, activists of the movement declared a need for establishing an independent miners’ trade union (Burnosov 1995: 42-43). With regard to the principles of a new economy, twenty six percent of delegates at the Second Miners’ Congress stated a preference for a “free market” economy, while 60 percent opted for a “regulated market.” Preferences for “centralised planned economy” and “basically centralised planned economy with some elements of market relations” were chosen only by 6 percent of delegates (Crowley and Siegelbaum 1995: 65). The Second Congress laid down the basis for the establishment of the Independent Miners’ Union as an organisation aimed at defending the economic and social rights of miners. In turn, standing strike committees took upon themselves all the “dirty” political work (interview with Mikhail Krylov, 1992, in Siegelbaum and Walkowitz 1995: 150).

In March-April 1991, the standing strike committees began to fulfill their function by holding the second all-Union miners’ strike. This time the miners called openly for the resignation of Gorbachev and the central government, the dismantling the Soviet parliament and for granting constitutional status to the Ukrainian Declaration of Sovereignty (Siegelbaum 1997: 10; Sarzhan 1998: 168). The Donbas miners did not wary of provoking repression since the weakness of the Soviet state had long become apparent. The participation in the strike by individual mines was not as representative as in 1989 (Burnosov 1995: 44). Moreover, the strike demands were not supported by other groups of workers. As Crowley has indicated, other workers could not join the Donbas miners for the prevalence of enterprise paternalism (1995). All post-Soviet workers heavily depended on their enterprises for the distribution of social goods, benefits and privileges. However, it was other industries with their large multifunctional plants and not coal pits that possessed a greater social infrastructure. Social grievances appeared to be more widespread among the coal miners than anybody else. And it was the miners who did not have much to lose in their contention with authorities. Thus, the radicalism of the miners’ movement was unable to attract a broad working-class support.

Notwithstanding, the mass media had no restrictions on publicising the 1991 strike and the authorities in Kiev and the Donbas supported the political demands of the miners. The strike leaders also co-operated with Ukrainian pro-independence and anti-communist groups. Although the 1991 strike did not assume a proportion capable of bringing down the Soviet state, it became, nevertheless, “both a reflection of and a further impetus to the decline of the Soviet ‘centre’” (Siegelbaum 1997: 11). After the failed coup d’état of August 1991 in Moscow, the Soviet Union collapsed.

In the referendum held on 1 December 1991, a Russified Donbas voted overwhelmingly for the independence of Ukraine. With the turnout approaching 80 percent, 84 percent of Donbas voters supported independence (Kuzio and Wilson 1994: 198). On the same day, Leonid Kravchuk, a Communist party functionary turned nationalist, was elected to be president of Ukraine. The first phase of the miners’ movement was over.

Adjustment: 1992-1994

With the new independent Ukraine, all the demands of the Donbas miners seemed to be finally realised. Yet post-communist transformations and Ukraine’s nation-building process soon generated new challenges for the miners’ movement. The goals of the miners and other vocal Ukrainian opposition groups in opposing the Soviet state and “Moscow bureaucracy” were almost identical. This similarity, however, was based on different beliefs. Ukrainian national intellectuals perceived independence as their greatest objective per se. As Kuzio and Wilson have emphasised, the intelligentsia has approached “practical” demands of the workers as something to be solved by itself through tackling the political issue. Members of Rukh, the largest opposition force, concentrated on cultural and political issues. At the First Congress of Rukh, promoting “democratisation and the expansion of glasnost’” was supported by 75 percent of the delegates; 73 percent advocated “the development of Ukrainian language and culture,” but only 46 percent prioritised “the solving of pressing economic problems” (Kuzio and Wilson 1994: 111). Contrary to the intelligentsia, the workers supported Ukraine’s independence because they believed it would improve their material conditions. The Donbas miners thought Ukraine’s independence would assure the enterprise autonomy and the accountability of the state (Siegelbaum and Walkowitz 1995; Kuzio and Wilson 1994: 110; Siegelbaum 1997: 17; Kuromiya 1998: 333). As Crowley has put it:

The support of the Russian-speaking Donba[s] miners for Ukrainian sovereignty was based not on nationalism, but on the hope that a Ukrainian government with more independence would provide a better deal than the Soviet government in terms of what it took away and what it gave back, while events would be easier to control in Kiev than in Moscow (Crowley 1995: 59).

The miners’ victory has appeared to be short-lived. Independence did not bring economic betterment. Despite pressing economic needs, the main effort of the state authorities was placed not on economic transformation, but on the institutionalisation of the new Ukrainian nation (von Hirschhausen 1998: 452). New Ukrainian authorities appeared to be embedded with economic nationalism and habits of central planning. Central ministries were continuing to prescribe quantitative economic plans and the state retained its tight control over the economy (Verkhovna Rada 1994). Ukraine’s government “tried to preserve an industrial structure which could not be preserved” (von Hirschhausen 1998: 452; see also Boss 1994; Sekarev 1995). By the end of 1993, gross domestic product (GDP) fell by more than 40 percent (CIA 1999; Havrylyshyn et al. 1998). In 1993, real wages were only 57.6 percent from the 1991 level.

Consumer prices skyrocketed by 13,046 percent (Lavigne 1999: 290-291). As late as 1994, Ukraine, in fact, had made no progress in reforming its economy (EBRD 1994). The vague economic policy of successive Ukrainian governments pushed the country into “one of the deepest post-Soviet recessions experienced by any of the transition economies not affected by war” (EIU 1998: 16).

By 1993, the most common feeling among Donbas workers was a sense of approaching “civil war”, “revolution” or “social explosion” (interviews with miners in Siegelbaum and Walkowitz 1995: 186; 209). At this moment, regional elites – local administration officials, clientelistic groupings and industrial lobbies – entered the political stage to champion “the region’s interests”. In the first few years after independence, Donets’k hold establishing congresses and conferences of six political organisations: the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Party, the Party of Slavonic Unity and the Civic Congress of Ukraine (Bolbat et al. 1994). Besides the communists, headed by Petro Symonenko, the Donets’k oblast’ CPSU committee secretary in the 1980s, other parties failed to gain a broad country-wide support. However, as some observers noticed, all the parties succeeded in developing a similar political agenda for the Donbas, advocating regional autonomy, self-government, legal status for Russian as the official language in the Donbas and as a second state language in Ukraine, and closer ties and re-integration within the CIS (Wilson 1993; Nemir’ya 1995; Smith and Wilson 1997: 849). As the Donbas was significantly contributing to the national budget (see Table 4), radicals accused Kiev of “expropriating all the Donbas monies” and pumping them into nationalist and “culturally alien” West Ukrainian provinces (see Nemir’ya 1995: 457). The regionalist political agenda set by newly established parties and informal groupings gained support from local mass media.

Donbas miners joined the campaign. In February 1992, Ukrainian miners established the Independent Miners’ Union of Ukraine (NPHU). Firstly, the NPHU, alongside the once-official Trade Union of Coal Mining Industry Employees (PPVP), began to pursue trade-unionist demands bargaining with Kiev for subsidies, pensions and wages. Given the unresponsiveness of Ukraine’s government preoccupied with ethno-nationalising policies, the Donbas miners began to support the idea of developing the region’s own economic policy. After several waves of picketing the Ukrainian parliament, the offices of the central government and the regional administration, the miners resorted to the most successful mechanism of their movement. On 7 June 1993, the first mine in Donets’k stopped working. The next day, another 75 mines joined the strike. The industrial action was co-ordinated by the Donets’k strike committee which put forth radical political demands: (1) regional independence for the Donbas, and (2) a country-wide referendum on (no) confidence in Ukraine’s president and the parliament (Crowley 1995: 6). More than 300 mines and major industrial enterprises in the Donbas took part in the strike.

The political demands of the miners enjoyed the support of both coal mining trade-unions, mine directors and other industrialists, Donbas-based political parties and movements, local officials, mass media and the majority of the region’s population:

It was therefore not simply a strike of miners and other workers, nor a “directors’ strike” with workers performing the role of foot soldiers, but a regional protest against the government in Kiev, its president, and policies that had brought the Donba[s] to its knees (Crowley and Siegelbaum 1995: 72).

The strike did not end after president Kravchuk fired the then prime minister Leonid Kuchma and appointed Iukhym Zviahil’skyi, director of the mine where the strike had begun, to be the acting head of the cabinet. Moreover, the tensions were growing. On 14 June 1993, the Donets’k oblast’ legislature put on its agenda the declaration of the Donbas “regional independence”. Russian was soon declared to be the official language in the Donbas (Burnosov 1995: 55). The support for regional independence was not overwhelming however. Neither the leadership of NPHU and PPVP nor the rank and file miners advocated Donbas independence (Burnosov 1995: 55). Nonetheless, the Donets’k city strike committee threatened Kiev to call for a general nation-wide strike and civil disobedience throughout the region, unless the political demands were satisfied. Behaving militantly, president Kravchuk declared the state of emergency in the country and took over the cabinet. To prevent civil unrest, the Ukrainian parliament finally agreed to hold the referendum on Kravchuk’s presidency and new parliamentary elections. The government’s emergency commission agreed to consider “economic independence” for the Donbas and satisfy demands for wage increases and indexations (Crowley and Siegelbaum 1995: 71-72; Crowley 1995: 6-7; Burnosov 1995: 54-56; Siegelbaum 1997: 18).

The June 1993 strike was the most successful contentious collective action of Donbas miners. Their movement succeeded in sustaining interaction with antagonists, elites and society. It also managed to become the most powerful mobilising structure and framing process for public protest in the country. However, as some commentators noticed, the subsumption of the movement “within a larger regional framework altered its character and placed it at the disposal of other economic and political forces” (Crowley and Siegelbaum 1995: 72; see also Nemir’ya 1995: 456). The scale of popular discontent turned the miners’ strike into not so much an economic struggle “as a struggle between the Donbas region and the rest of the country” (Seigelbaum 1997: 18). This struggle provoked doubts in Ukraine’s survival as an independent state (Solchanyk 1994; see Crowley 1995: 65). Though the 1993 strike was initiated by the miners, it had been eventually headed by the regional elite and the oblast’ administration.

Kuromiya has argued that the miners’ demand for a free economic zone was, in fact, a rejection of the old, centrally planed economy preserved by the central government in Kiev (Kuromiya 1998: 333). Nonetheless, pro-market features of the 1993 strike were engulfed in broader regionalist protest. Consequently, in the March-April 1994 parliamentary elections, opposition forces headed by hard-liners from the Communist party won the majority of seats in the region. In the aftermath of the strike, Donbas voters assured the victory of Leonid Kuchma, a former prime minister and a pragmatic industrialist, over Leonid Kravchuk in the June-July 1994 presidential elections (see Table 5). The miners’ movement entered the last phase of its development.

Fragmentation: 1995 - present

Actively contending the governing authorities, Donbas miners perceived democratisation and marketisation as means of achieving their main aim. “Moscow bureaucrats” and “Kiev nationalists” were consequently seen as the main obstacle to a “civilised way of living.” With the election of Leonid Kuchma, the last miners’ rival fell down. However, it appeared that the “fruits” of miners’ victory were to become their new and ultimate challenge (Siegelbaum 1997).

In October 1994, the administration of president Kuchma launched a programme of market-oriented reforms. Within three years, the government achieved macro-economic and monetary stabilisation. Inflation rate fell from skyrocketing 10,000 percent annually in 1993 to 15 percent in 1997. If between 1991 and 1996, Ukraine’s national currency lost 18,000 times its value against US dollar, during the next four years the national currency was devaluated by 3.3 times only. Substantial progress was also made on price and trade liberalisation and small-scale privatisation. The majority of state-owned enterprises was formally privatised or commercialised. By mid-1999, the private sector share of GDP reached 55 percent (EBRD 1999: 24). Nevertheless, Ukraine’s GDP continued to fall until a one-percent recovery in 1998. Ukraine’s real GDP that year was only 38 percent of its 1989 level (Stern 1998: 2). The lack of any significant structural reforms was blamed for the decline of Ukraine’s economy (von Hirschhausen: 1998).

The World Bank and the International Energy Agency reports have described Ukraine’s coal industry as in “a deep crisis” and in “a painful decline” (WB 1996; IEA 1996). The coal industry suffered a 50 percent slump in coal output between 1990 and 1995. Notwithstanding, labour rationalisation efforts were minimal. According to independent reports, in 1995, Ukraine’s coal industry employed 650,000 miners, who produced 65.6 million tons of coal in 276 mines and 64 coal washing plants. Taking into account people employed in supporting functions, mining-related industries, managerial and technical staff, and social services (such as kindergartens, hospitals and sanatoria), the total number of Ukraine’s coal industry employees was around 1,000,000 (i.e. 2.5 percent of the national labour force). One-third of Ukrainian mines produced coal at a cost above the average import price (IEA 1996: 157-8; Lovei 1998: 2). The World Bank noted that “even under a relatively optimistic scenario, about half of the people directly employed in coal extraction may have to leave over the next five years” (WB 1996: 19-21, as cited in Siegelbaum 1997: 16). According to a famous observation, “the spectre of the Iron Lady has hanged over the “bloated” mining industry, the miners’ movement, and the miners themselves” (Siegelbaum 1997: 1, 22).

While trying to curb inflation and reduce budget deficit, Ukraine’s government decreased the amount of subsidies given to the coal industry. The first restructuring efforts resulted in mounting financial losses and payment arrears across all sectors of the economy (see Figure 1). A new cycle of miners’ protest began in November 1995, when all branch leaders of the NPHU went on a hunger strike over unpaid wages and the deterioration in living conditions. Coal deliveries to customers were halted (Monitor, November 3, 1995). In February 1996, miners in Russia and Ukraine started a simultaneous mass strike recalling the events of 1989.

Nevertheless, there was a critical difference between the previous and new phases of contention. Contrary to the events of 1989 and 1991, the miners now had “eschewed political demands to focus instead on their empty wallets” (Monitor, February 2, 1996). Over 600,000 Donbas miners took part in the protest refusing to load coal and demanding about $122 million in back wages. Gaining support from steel workers, the trade-union leaders called for a general strike. However, after some government’s promises to pay the wages, the strike was “suspended.”

Notwithstanding the resignation of prime minister Evhen Marchuk, the industrial action was soon resumed. In July 1996, about 140,000 Donbas miners took part in blocking roads, railway tracks and picketing the regional administration headquarters. Given the paralysis of highway and rail traffic in the Donbas, Ukraine’s new prime minister, Pavlo Lazarenko, and other government officials concluded a strike settlement with both miners’ trade unions. The government assured a full repayment of the overdue wages. Donets’k governor was dismissed by president Kuchma for “having lost control of the situation in the region.” Nevertheless, radical leaders of the Donets’k strike committee did not accept the settlement and continued the strike and the traffic blockage. This time, the governing authorities resorted to repression. The leaders of the Donets’k strike committee were arrested and put on trial in a remote provincial town. The riot police forced the miners to clear roads and railway tracks.

After the July 1996 protest, the fragmentation of the miners’ movement was furthered by the government’s restructuring programme. All coal mines were divided into four categories: (1) profitable mines; (2) mines that were given a year to regain profitability; (3) mines scheduled to be closed down within three to five years; (4) mines, where production were stopped in anticipation of immediate closure (Lovei 1998; Egorova and Otto 1998). The non-payment crisis accompanied by a “Thatcherite solution” had an immense impact on the miners’ movement:

Many who were once active became disgusted with the failure of the movement to improve conditions for miners and their families or even arrest their deterioration. Some have taken advantage of skills honed in strike committees to go into business or another profession. Mutual recrimination and rivalry between the two unions, among different regions and within them, profitable and unprofitable mines, repeatedly fractured the movement causing further leakage. Tensions within the movement were exacerbated by the unequal distribution of subsidies which virtually invited miners to engage in locally organised protests to obtain their share (Siegelbaum 1997: 21).

From then on, wildcat strikes, spontaneous hunger strikes and pickets became a daily occurrence in the Donbas. The repertoire of contention included the blocking of roads and railway lines, a bomb threat, marches of miners to regional capitals and Kiev, “indefinite” refusals to work and underground strikes. Clashes with police, collective suicide threats and several committed protest suicides were among the most violent contentious actions that miners resorted to. The payment of wage and pension arrears became the most repeated demand.

In May 1998, when the wage arrears approached US$1 billion, the NPHU called a strike supported, nevertheless, by only 100,000 Donbas miners at 45 mines. The participants demanded the payment of wage and pension arrears, restoration of the 1990 parity of wages, pensions and social benefits, and priority public financing for the coal industry. The PPVP did not support the strike as “being counterproductive”. Given the lack of co-ordination among the two trade unions, some miners resorted to spontaneous measures. About three thousand miners from western Donbas marched on foot about 100 kilometres to the regional capital of Dnipropetrovs’k and camped outside the oblast’ administration building to claim wage arrears.

Some 1,000 miners reached Kiev on foot. Notwithstanding the mass media publicity, the state and societal responses to the miners’ protest were becoming increasingly hostile:

Popular support for miners weakened when, starting in mid-1998, representatives of other professions that were also suffering from unpaid wages (such as teachers and nurses) argued publicly against giving special treatment to miners. Recognising an opportunity, the government decided to revitalise the process of coal industry restructuring. A new coal minister was appointed in early June, and agreement was reached with the World Bank about a revised reform programme … bringing to fifty-two the number of mines closed or under closure (Lovei 1998: 6).

Donbas miners were again accused of being only interested in “pulling all the blanket on themselves”. The miners’ reaction this time was not anger but desperation. The suicide rate in the Donbas grew. On 14 December 1998, on the 155th day of picketing the oblast’ administration building in Luhans’k, one of 200 miners, Oleksandr Mykhalevych, set himself on fire. On 22 January 1999, another miner, Oleksandr Konariov, also burned himself to death to protest against the humiliation of not being paid (Associated Press, 20 February 1999).

Common depressive feelings among the region’s population were reflected in the results of the 1998 parliamentary elections, when extreme left and populist parties scored the biggest victories in the region (see Table 6). The miners’ protest voting led to an additional $300 million allocated to the industry by the new parliament. Nevertheless, new elections did not appear to succeed in halting the pit closures. In line with official data, by the end of 1998, the first twelve mines were closed in the Donbas. Around 372,000 employees left Ukraine’s coal industry that year. In 1999, another 20 mines were shut. The government planned to close another 49 mines in 2000. Thus, the fragmentation of the miners’ movement was followed by the start of their industry’s destruction.

In February 1999, 171 mines stopped dispatching coal to customers. The miners, organised this time by both trade unions, demanded the payment of wage arrears and the increase of subsidies to the coal industry. The NPHU threatened to put forth political demands, including the resignation of the government and the president and to organise massive riots unless the miners’ demands were met. Having decided to run for re-election in October 1999, president Kuchma was ready to intervene into the labour conflict. He ordered the cabinet to “prioritise payment of the miners’ wage arrears”. To mitigate social unrest and mainly to gain support from the ambitious Donbas elites, president Kuchma finally granted a status of “free economic zone” to Donets’k oblast’, the most populous among the two Donbas provinces. According to a law adopted by the parliament just before the October 1999 presidential elections, Donets’k oblast’ was designated for the establishment of two special economic zones with long tax and custom duty havens. Seventeen mining towns in the Donbas were given a status of “priority development territories” (Verkhovna Rada 1999).

During the 1999 presidential campaign, Kuchma visited the Donbas on several media publicised occasions. Using heavy-handed techniques against his opponents, Kuchma began to re-conquer the Donbas “Soviet belt” previously occupied exclusively by the Communist party. He promised to provide Donbas clientelistic elites with even more “economic independence”. In return, he was given an overwhelming backing by regional officials, local business circles and mass media (Kyiv Post, 20 May 1999). “Kuchma is for the Donbas. So, the Donbas is for Kuchma!” was the message to get the best promotion in the region (Kyiv Post, 28 October 1999). This message also appeared to be the most heard one. During the first round of the elections on 31 October 1999, Donbas voters gave their preferences to Petro Symonenko, Donets’k-based leader of Ukrainian communists. Nevertheless, during the second round on 14 December 1999, Kuchma succeeded in defeating Symonenko in the Donbas and, thus, in the country as a whole (see Table 7).

Soon after the elections, the bulk of state-owned property was redistributed to Ukraine’s most powerful elites that fully supported the “old and new” president (Halyts’ki kontrakty, no. 2-3, January 2000). According to several presidential decrees, Donets’k and Dnipropetrovs’k oblast’ administrations were given management rights over all state-owned and state-controlled companies and enterprises in their respective oblast’s. The two oblast’s administrations have obtained management rights over the two largest energy companies in Ukraine. The oblast’’ officials were effectively empowered to authorise all economic activity in the two regions (Halyts’ki kontrakty, no. 7, February 2000). Moreover, the government and the regional elites initiated talks as to the establishment by July 2000 of Donets’k and Dnipropetrovs’k regional power “supercompanies”. The two “supercompanies” would encompass all energy, coal mining and washing enterprises, as well as R&D and banking institutions that exist in Donets’k and Dnipropetrovs’k oblast’s.

Donbas miners struck relentlessly in January and February 2000. The industrial action was either spontaneous or organised separately by the NPHU or the PPVP. Almost all steam mines (120 out of 135 left) halted to deliver coal to customers demanding higher subsidies and wages, the payment of wage and pension arrears as well as the stoppage of increasing coal imports from Poland and Russia. The Ukrainian government decisively refused to “cede itself to the populist demands”. According to a local newspaper, “the trade-union leaders do not nourish any particular hopes in the success of their action” (Gorod, No. 6, February 2000).

Explaining the failure

Since 1989, Donbas miners have been engaged in a sustained contentious interaction with their powerful opponents – the state and governing authorities. Resorting to various forms of protest, the miners’ movement has tried to facilitate the creation of “normal life” for its participants. As the sections above have shown, the miners did not succeed in achieving their aim. The sad irony is that the miners’ movement failed even to arrest the deterioration in living and working conditions of its participants. The Donbas miners continued to live and perish under increasingly desperate circumstances. Writing in 1997, Lewis Siegelbaum noted that “the miners’ movement has been sufficiently powerful to prevent a ‘Thatcherite solution’, but not strong enough to compel their governments to adopt a more human one” (p. 27). By now, the strength of the miners’ movement has been weakened even further. Why has the miners’ movement failed? Was there any chance for its success?

Social movement theories emphasise the significance of three broad sets of factors that account for the emergence, development or decline of contentious politics. These three determinants are: (1) political opportunities – “changes in the institutional structure or informal power relations of a given political system;” (2) mobilising structures – “those collective vehicles, informal as well as formal, through which people mobilise and engage in collective action;” and (3) framing processes – “conscious strategic efforts by groups of people to fashion shared understandings of the world and of themselves that legitimate and motivate collective action” (McAdam et al. 1996: 1-20). Tarrow has linked these three broad sets of factors by stressing the degree of turbulence generated by social movements:

Changes in political opportunities and constraints create the most important incentives for initiating new phases of contention. These actions in turn create new opportunities both for the original insurgents and for latecomers, and eventually for opponents and power holders. The cycles of contention – and in rare cases, the revolutions – that ensue are based on the externalities that these actors gain and create. The outcomes of such waves of contention depend not on the justice of the cause or the persuasive power of any single movement, but on their breadth and the reactions of elites and other groups (1998: 7).

It is argued that the failure of the Donbas miners’ movement was determined in the first cycle of its contention. During the mobilisation phase, the miners used the changes in political opportunities and constraints provided by perestroika and democratisation to engage into the collective contentious action against powerful Moscow “partocrats”. The shifting of alignments within the Communist state hierarchy assured the absence of repression against the workers. The division of political elites between communist hard-liners, bureaucratic moderates and nationalist radicals provided the miners with access to the political output.

However, it was the “national democratic” intelligentsia but not the workers from other industries that appeared to become the miners’ most influential allies in their fight for the autonomy and independence from the “centre”. The opponents of the Donbas miners and the Ukrainian intellectuals – “imperialists and exploiters in Moscow” – were identical. Nevertheless, the framing process of their joint collective action was different. The miners mobilised for welfare gains, believed to be achieved through marketisation and privatisation. On the other hand, the preservation of national culture and language, threatened by Russian and Soviet assimilatory policies, was the main concern of the Ukrainian humanitarian intelligentsia. So long as “Moscow” continued to exist, the link between the workers and the intellectuals sustained itself. That link was vague however. Operating within different cultural frames, the miners and the intellectuals failed to establish a common mobilising structure to reinforce their pro-democracy and pro-market challenges. No joint opposition institution emerged.

Besides the intellectuals, there was another broader segment of the population to whom the miners’ strive for normal life could had been more appealing. Why did not other post-Soviet Ukraine’s workers join the Donbas miners? Crowley indicated that the difference in economic deprivation and enterprise paternalism determined, on the one hand, the particular militancy of miners and, on the other hand, the lack of trans-occupational solidarity among workers in general (1995). The apparent lack of working-class solidarity is recognised as the main reason for the failure of the labour movement to “become an organised political force of capable of bringing about permanent social changes” (Temkina 1991: 17; as quoted in Crowley and Siegelbaum 1995: 66; for similar accounts see Teague 1992). Hence no Ukrainian “Solidarity” was born.

The political opportunities created by the common action of Donbas miners and Kiev intellectuals were eventually seized by the former nomenklatura and new business elites. During the second phase of the miners’ movement, the support previously provided by the national intelligentsia vanished. Coal managers, regional clientelistic groupings, business elites and broad segments of the local Russophone population were to become new miners’ allies. The movement was gradually transformed into a powerful mobilising structure for regionalist protest. The 1993 strike became a significant political opportunity for latecoming local elites in their contentious interaction with the new “centre”. By opposing Kiev antagonists, the miners’ movement became a part in the national power struggle between regional and central clientelistic groupings and elites.

The start of market reforms and industrial restructuring fragmented and further weakened the miners’ movement. The Donbas elites gained an access to privatisation and property re-distribution mechanisms and lost their interest in the miners’ mobilising structures. In the third cycle of contention, the miners’ movement was abandoned by its last ally – broad strata of the Donbas population. The economic crisis enormously increased the cost of collective contentious action. The double dependence of workers on the enterprise and, in turn, of the enterprise on the state budget became the main demobilising factor in the workers’ fight for survival (Crowley and Siegelbaum 1995; Cook 1995; Crowley 1995; Siegelbaum 1997).

Growing unemployment and the degradation in living standards among various social groups of the Ukrainian society had a deligitimising affect on the miners’ movement. The sense of injustice and emotionality eventually turned into a feeling of helplessness, frustration and depression. Political opportunities previously enjoyed by the miners also declined. The access to political and economic output was closed by the emerging consensus between former antagonists. Under Kuchma, national power struggle games became an internal affair of Kiev, Dnipropetrovs’k and Donets’k elites. The elites’ selective use of repression (as during the 1996 strikes), fragmentation (e.g. by providing the mines with different status) and incentives (e.g. by granting “economic independence”) had the effect of demobilising the miners.

The Donbas miners began their contention as a civil reformist movement. They mobilised hoping for changes in the economic and political system to be obtained through democratic and market-oriented reforms. The miners’ action ended as a marginal labour movement from a declining industry trying to save jobs and income. According to several observers, such a drastic trajectory could have been avoided, had the miners forged an organised political identity with a social-democratic platform (Walkowitz 1995; Crowley 1995). However, no one appeared to be able to ally with the miners to imprint this political identity in a broader political institution.

Counterbalancing the state

The case of the Donbas miners suggests that not all Eastern Europeans were able to sustain their patience under post-communism. Some Eastern Europeans did protest against draconian economic conditions of post-communist transformation. Moreover, they resorted to violent and disruptive as well as conventional forms of public protest. The militancy of the miners’ movement was caused by a traditional factor – economic inequality and deprivation. The miners’ contentious action produced a social movement capable of influencing state policies and the government. Nevertheless, what happened afterwards was not the outcome the social movement had aimed at.

It appears that it is not the mere existence or absence of public protest that matters. Even violent, disruptive and prolonged public protest can be a failure without a constructive response from elites and social groups. As Tarrow has suggested, policy elites respond not to the claims of any individual movement but to the degree of turbulence generated by it (1998: 25). In the case of Ukraine, firstly, the cultural framing process associated with the Donbas miners’ movement could not generate a country-wide turbulence or a constructive reaction from other societal groups. Second, the political constraints and economic crisis disabled any further turbulence and made it self-defeating. New political opportunities, framing processes and even mobilising structures created by the miners’ movement were seized not by the original insurgents themselves, but by others who sought more “modest”, less inclusive utility-maximising goals and were more effective at advancing them (Tarrow 1998: 174-5). The Donbas miners were effectively outmaneuvred by rent-seeking latecomers from the regional elite as well as by power holders. Thus, the miners’ movement failed to bring about far reaching social changes or, at least, to defend its claims due to an absence of allies rather than to the alleged lack of protest.

Since its birth during the “hot summer” of 1989, the Donbas miners’ movement became a symbol of the emerging civil society. The miners were a group of citizens actively checking and opposing the state. Moreover, on several occasions, the miners clearly approached the victory of civil society, “when the state was checked by an institution with an economic base” (Gellner 1996: 211). The failure of the miners’ movement suggests that during post-communist transformation, the state can preserve and increase its power over other public spheres. The role of the state and governing authorities in conducting economic transition or re-distributing public property can be very significant. When it is the case, polity and economy continue to be an interconnected entity that relies on informal bargains and personal rewards rather than economic growth for its stability. The Donbas miners failed because they were not given a positive societal response. Other social groups did not join the movement due to their dependence on the state budget and the bureaucrats responsible for the re-distribution of the budget. Under the circumstances where there is no economy independent from the state and the polity, civil society and its institutions have no autonomous base for existence. Paraphrasing Gellner, one must say that it is still clear who is boss in some post-communist societies.


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