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More Protests Against Russian Oligarch Deripaska

Oleg Deripaska

Oleg Deripaska

MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Workers at a paper mill in Siberia owned by businessman Oleg Deripaska protested over unpaid wages on June 8, media reported, less than a week after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rebuked him in a similar dispute.

Reports said 63 people had started hunger strikes and two dozen others were demonstrating against the management of the Soviet-era paper mill on the banks of Lake Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake.

The demonstrators were considering blocking a highway if their demands were not met -- a tactic used by the protesters last week before Putin intervened.

Last week on national television, Putin humiliated Deripaska by treating him as an errant schoolboy and likened him and other factory owners to "cockroaches." He then forced him to sign a contract restarting supplies to idle factories in the town of Pikalyovo, 270 kilometer from St Petersburg.

Deripaska's investment vehicle Basic Element owns 51 percent of the Soviet-era paper mill by Lake Baikal which was mothballed during the last quarter of 2008.

Oksana Gorlova, spokeswoman for Basic Element's timber arm Continental Management, which manages Baikal paper and pulp mill, said the company had transferred 87.6 million roubles ($2.8 million) on June 8 to pay all wage arrears accumulated since February, when the factory had been due to reopen.

She blamed the plants's closure on a court decision last year, supported by ecologists, which banned the mill from disposing of waste water into the lake.

"No one was thinking about people when the decision was taken that forced us to mothball the plant," she said.

The mill employs 2,000 people and is the main employer in Baikalsk, which has a total population of 17,000.

Ecologists have said that although they wanted the plant to stop pumping waste into the lake, they also advocated turning the factory into a more environmentally friendly business.

The global economic crisis has hit Russia hard, forcing unemployment to jump to around 7.7 million. Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have said oligarchs are not helping ordinary people enough.

A tough line on oligarchs may help the Kremlin win additional support from ordinary Russians, traditionally critical of the super-wealthy businessmen.

"Forbes" magazine last year estimated Deripaska's wealth at $28 billion. Once Russia's richest man, he has lost most of his fortune in the crisis and is trying to restructure billions of dollars of loans owed by his flagship company UC Rusal.