Vienna, January 20 – To the horror of environmentalists, scholars and many ordinary Russians, Vladimir Putin’s first decree of 2010 was not devoted “to the problems of unemployment, the crisis, pensions, education or health.” Instead, it opened the way for a cellulose plant to dump wastes into Lake Baikal, one of the great natural wonders of the world.
The Russian prime minister hinted last summer that he would take that step so that the plant could reopen and provide employment to people in the hard-hit company town of Baikalsk, but many observers in the region believe he actually did this as a favor to Oleg Deripaska, whose company owns the plant and who has seen his wealth decline during the crisis.
Putin’s decision, announced a week ago, will allow the Baikal Cellulose Paper Firm to reopen, giving jobs to some 1600 people while allowing the plan to dump some 30,000 tons of contaminants into the lake. But as Babr.ru observer Dmitry Tayevsky points out, Putin’s decree goes much further in an unfortunate direction (news.babr.ru/?IDE=83388)
Under its terms, the commentator says, “the government will permit” firms to store and dispose of various kinds of chemical wastes “beyond the confines of specially equipped places” as the law had required. Translated into Russian, Tayevsky says, this means that other enterprises “will be able to throw or pour their wastes into Lake Baikal without punishment.”
The Siberian writer asks rhetorically: Why would Putin do this? The cellulose plant is hardly “a strategic object.” It is bankrupt. And its equipment is far from up to date. The only answer is that “Mr. Putin brazenly and openly is lobbying the selfish interests of Oleg Deripaska to the harm of all Russia.”
“Lake Baikal,” he notes, “is a unique strategic reserve of fresh water which already is priced no less than the oil so beloved by Putin.” Indeed, the Babr.ru writer continues, Putin himself at one point seemed to recognize this: In April 2006, he said, “if there is the smallest chance of contaminating Baikal, we must do everything not to minimize but to exclude that!”
But by last summer, Putin had clearly changed his mind. Faced with the company town threat, he said that Moscow must develop a program to provide employment for the “more than 1600” people who worked there even if the operation of the factory might have some environmental consequences (www.polit.ru/event/2010/01/19/savior.html).
An even more compelling reason to act, Putin apparently concluded, involves the losses his supporter Deripaska, the owner of a 51 percent share of the cellulose plant, and the fact that at least some of those losses reflected efforts by the Russian government in the past to protect the environment by shutting the plant down.
Since Putin’s decision, dozens of scholars and environmental activists have spoken out against it (news.babr.ru/?IDE=83413). And yesterday, Greenpeace Russia issued a public statement denouncing the decision and calling on Putin to reverse himself in order to protect Baikal (www.sobkorr.ru/news/4B5561023CC95.html).
Greenpeace said that as a result of what Putin has done, the cellulose plant “can send poisonous flows into the lake, a world heritage object, without any limitations as to time, extent or content,” a violation of existing Russian and international law and a step that is senseless because the plant itself is not profitable.
Moreover, the environmental organization warned, starting up the decrepit plant now “under conditions of winter cold and with a lack of qualified cadres” could lead to the kind of industrial accident that would not only threaten Lake Baikal with even greater contamination but the lives of people living nearby.
Protecting Lake Baikal and closing the cellulose plant on its banks has been a major plank in the platform of Russian environmentalist and nationalist groups ever since the firm began operations in 1966. As a result of public pressure, the CPSU Central Committee and Council of Ministers in Gorbachev’s time called for it to be closed by 1993.
Last year, Russian officials did just that on environmental grounds, but now Putin, nominally in the name of saving jobs of Baikalsk workers but actually in order to protect the Deripaska’s profits, has reversed them, setting the stage for yet another unequal battle between those who care about the environment and the Russian powers that be.