March 3 – People around the world have been outraged by Vladimir Putin’s decision to allow the Baikalsk cellulose factory to reopen and dump chemical wastes into Lake Baikal, an activist says, but they should be even more upset that the scandal he created was intended to distract attention from an even more serious threat to that natural wonder.
Like the intelligence officer he once was, Mikhail Kulekhov says in today’s “Novaya gazeta,” Putin used the classic tactic of doing something to get people to focus on one thing so that they will ignore something else, in this case a major policy change concerning the storage of nuclear and other toxic wastes near that lake (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2010/022/15.html).
That can be seen, the Siberian activist says, if one closely examines the controversial history of the Baikalsk plant and in particular the hitherto little noted changes Putin introduced in his January decree nominally permitting the reopening of the plant about questions not directly related to the Baikalsk Cellulose and Paper Complex.
From the very beginning in Soviet times, the Baikalsk plant was controversial. On the one hand, ecologists and historical preservationists viewed its operation as a threat to the pristine waters of the lake. And on the other, the plant “did not make a profit for a single day during its entire history.
Because of the former, the Soviet government was under public pressure to close the plant and did agree to end the discharge of wastes into Baikal. But because the latter had little meaning for communist officials who did not make decisions based on profit and loss, they did not know “what to do with the people” who had been brought there to operate the Baikalsk plant.
But after the collapse of the Soviet system, the plant’s inability to make a profit – it had high costs because it had to bring pulp from far away and it could not compete with a much more modern and efficient plant in Harbin, China – the plant stopped functioning. It fell into decay, and the cost of restoring it would be prohibitive.
The company town phenomenon, however, gave the people of Baikalsk a chance. Putin was interested in presenting himself to the world as the savior of its workers – he and his subordinates presented him as being more concerned about people than fish – and apparently he was also interested in helping oligarch Oleg Deripaska who owned a share of Baikalsk.
(That second motive appeared to many Moscow analysts as decisive, especially because Deripaska had taken a public relations and financial hit at Pikalevo, the classical “monogorod” and the first such place that Putin presented himself as a kind of dues ex machina who could solve the problems of these places.)
On January 13th of this year, Putin issued his decree “On the introduction of changes in the enumeration of types of activity prohibited in the central ecological zone of the Baikal natural territory.” And that action, which appeared to give the green light to the reopening of the Baikalsk plant, sparked meetings and demonstrations in both Irkutsk and elsewhere.
“What is interesting in this decree,” Kulekhov says, is not that it allows the reopening of the Baikal plant. That is because the costs of bringing the plant back into operation would be so excessive and the prospects for profit would be so small that “no one intends to renew” production at the plant.
Deripaska has already bailed out, transferring his ownership share to a colleague and to the municipal authorities of Baikalsk. As a result,”49 percent of the shares [now] belong to the government, and now it [and no oligarch or anyone else] as the majority shareholder will be responsible for everything.”
Putin’s decision and the inherently unlikely possibility that the plant will reopen attracted so much attention that “no one focused” on the impact of other points in Putin’s decree: Until January 13th, Russian government rules had prohibited the release into Baikal or the preservation in that district of wastes, “including radioactive substances.”
But Putin’s decree restated this requirement in a way that changed it entirely. It prohibited the collection or release of such wastes in the Baikal area “beyond the borders of specially established spaces for the storage of waste products that were created on the basis of the requirements of the legislation of the Russian Federation.”
That represents a major change. If before, the government banned the placement of any such materials in the region, now under the terms of Putin’s decree, “everything is in order” if a particular location is declared “a specially outfitted place for the location of radioactive wastes.” Putin’s declaration permits this.
By making a feint in one direction to attract attention in order to proceed in another, Putin demonstrated, Kulekhov says, that his time in the security services had not been wasted because today around Baikal “we are dealing with a classical example of ‘a diversion operation,’” one in which people are caught looking in the wrong direction.
And Putin’s effort will be all the more successful if the Baikalsk plant never reopens. People around the world, Kulekhov says, “will breathe easier: ‘Baikal is saved,’” they will feel. But if Putin’s decree allows nuclear waste to be stored there, Baikal’s supporters could find out too late that they have missed a larger threat because of their focus on a smaller one.