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Analysis & Opinion
16.02.10 Pulp Fiction
By Tom Balmforth

To all appearances, it was victory for Baikal’s jobseekers and bitter defeat for its ecologists, as
officials said the Baikalsk Paper and Pulp Mill would be back on line by the end of February, once again dumping waste into the pristine waters of Lake Baikal. Activists on Sunday took to the streets in defense of the freshwater lake and some demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who in January signed off on a resolution allowing the mill to reopen, ostensibly to create jobs. But a director for WWF Russia painted a very different picture, arguing that business interests were really shaping the future of the UNESCO-protected lake and using job-making as a pretext.

The dispute over the paper mill at Lake Baikal has a long history and on February 14, the day before it was scheduled to reopen, the depth of feeling on both sides was on full display. A thousand environmental activists gathered in the town of Baikalsk in central Siberia to protest the reopening of the paper and pulp mill on the lake’s shores. Meanwhile, down the road a similar number of hopeful jobseekers rallied in support of the reopening. The former demanded Putin’s resignation, while the latter brandished United Russia banners supporting their prime minister.

The dispute surrounding the mill at Baikal goes back to the early Soviet perestroika era, when an public movements challenged the state-owned mill over its dumping of waste which was destroying the ecological balance of the world’s largest freshwater lake. The campaign is often lauded as one the Glasnost period’s great symbolic victories. So is this a rehearsal of the same of debate?

The mill has been out of action for fourteen months since a ban was finally pushed through outlawing paper, pulp and cardboard production due the effect its waste by-product has on Baikal, which accounts for a fifth of the world’s freshwater. This ban, however, was overturned on January 13, when Putin – not for the first time casting himself as the savior of Russia’s unemployed - passed a resolution to legalize their production in order to create jobs.

And in spite of a huge outcry from environmentalists, the mill is now set to reopen, albeit later than expected. “Production of sample brown pulp consignments is underway – full production will start in February,” the mill’s spokesman told the RIA Novosti new agency.

Environmentalists then upped the ante by submitting an open letter to Russia’s leadership demanding Putin’s resolution be repealed, before it causes an “ecological catastrophe.” The letter has so far collected more than 31,000 signatures. “The decision by the government of the Russian Federation, which gives its blessing to the reestablishment of the work at the mill and to the construction of new mills surrounding Lake Baikal must be repealed!” reads the open letter.

But so far it doesn’t look like much will give. The majority stake holder of the mill, aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, has tried to placate environmentalists, saying he will install technology which within three years will see the mill functioning in an environmentally friendly way. Deripaska also said Friday that his company, Continental Management, will hand over its 51 percent stake in the mill to the city as soon as it becomes profitable, The Moscow Times reported.

But Evgenny Schwartz, the director for conservation policy at WWF Russia, said Baikalsk’s self-styled benefactor had no such intention, and had exploited his connections in the government in order to change legislation so he could switch some of his assets to a more lucrative (and previously banned) industry – paper and pulp production. “Because Deripaska has access to the prime minister, he was able to lobby for amendments to the list of banned products according to the law of 1999,” said Schwarz.

According to Schwarz, Deripaska exploited the idea of creating jobs “as a key with which to change the terms of the ban in order to fit his own needs.” In actual fact, he continued, “from the 1,500 people fired at the [mill’s 2008 closure], only 700 are still looking for employment and all of the most qualified workers have left the region.” This means that people are actually being brought in from outside the region to staff the mill, he said, which raises a question mark over the argument that opening it will create employment for the single-industry town’s 16,000-strong population.

Further, Schwarz said it was simply a “lie” that the mill had ever employed as many as 17,000 (the number claimed by pro-factory protesters on Saturday’s demonstration). “The mill never employed more than 2,300 people,” he said.
Schwarz said it was clear that the Russian government, which holds a 49 percent stake in the mill, had no intention of upgrading its environmental technology because it would be too expensive. He said it would be considerably cheaper to support Baikalsk’s people without the mill at a cost of an estimated $6 million per year, than employ a fraction of the population at the expense of $33.5 million – the price of making the mill environmentally friendly.

Whatever the motives behind the reopening, what does all this mean for Lake Baikal? Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center, reckons the government will actually cave in to environmental protests. “I think it is almost inevitable that the Kremlin will repeal the decision. If you bear in mind that very little can be done by the government in order to pacify the protestors, and if you look at the history of the protest of the oil pipeline – they were a constant headache for the Kremlin,” said Petrov.

Baikial environmental activism has had its share of past success. In 2008, environmentalists apparently outmuscled Russia’s oil men when they protested against a pipeline connecting Eastern Siberia to the Pacific which would have crossed the surrounding Buryatia region. Putin – this time casting himself as the savior of Russia’s wildlife – ordered the route moved 40 kilometers north of the lake.

“Irkutsk is a special region – civil society is pretty active there. And if they managed to get 1,000 people during winter, then the crowd will be much bigger in spring,” said Petrov.

And demonstrations connected with Baikal will have the government worried, said Petrov. The lake is important not only for the people of Irkutsk, but for Russians everywhere. “Protests like this could spread to other places – even Moscow,” he said.
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