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Russia: Government Goes Against The Floe

St. Petersburg, 5 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Authorities in Russia are talking about cracking down these days on a variety of miscreants -- tax deadbeats, organized criminals, corrupt officials and ice fishermen.

Ice fishermen?

Yes, at least among those who, in growing numbers, end up stranded on ice floes in the Gulf of Finland. The government complains that the cost of mobilizing rescue armadas to fish out the hapless anglers is straining the budget.

The St. Petersburg branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry, says that during the first two months of this year, 725 ice fishermen had to be pulled from ice chunks adrift in the Gulf of Finland. All told, the rescues cost the equivalent of $48,000.

On the weekend of February 6-7, 644 fishermen were caught adrift in the Gulf. The weather was warm then, and when the ice started to melt many fishermen -- who casually venture out one or two kilometers from shore -- were caught unaware. So said Andrei Alyabyev, a local spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry.

A mass effort had to be mounted in order to save them. Icebreakers, helicopters, locals in their own boats, and border guards were launched in the operation.

The government is especially annoyed by the fact that the problem is getting worse and more expensive. Rescue workers had to pull only 197 fishermen from the ice during the first five months of 1997.

As a solution, the Emergency Situations Ministry thinks fishermen should be more responsible. As Alyabyev put it: "The fishermen do not understand that huge amounts are spent to save them when they recklessly venture on the ice, and the government cannot afford it."

Russian law does not forbid people from venturing out onto the ice to go fishing. In fact, ice fishing is a national sport, and people can be seen doing it in the center of St. Petersburg on the Neva river. It's common in other northern countries as well, but getting stranded on the ice seems to be a peculiarly Russian endeavor. When Russian and Swedish rescue officials met recently, the Swedes were shocked to learn that the Russians had to save people drifting on the ice. In Alyabyev's words: "The Swedes explained to us that they do not have such incidents. I guess the Swedes are a more reasonable people and do not recklessly endanger themselves. But our fishermen love the thrill of going out onto the ice to catch fish."