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Siberians Hold Competing Rallies Over Reopening Of Baikal Paper Mill

Some 2,000 protesters gathered in Irkutsk today to rally against the reopening of the controversial paper mill.
(RFE/RL) -- Some 2,000 people rallied today in the Siberian city of Irkutsk to protest the planned reopening of a paper mill on the shores of Lake Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake.

Another 2,000 demonstrators gathered in the city for a counterrally in defense of the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, which was shut down amid ecological concerns in 2008. Backers say will create jobs and help improve the region's economy.

"Together with the Irkutsk government, we have been defending the social-economic program for the development of our city, Baikalsk," said Mayor Valery Pintayev. "I hope that the government holds a session today or tomorrow and that we receive serious financial support as one of Russia's 26 mono-cities. We will continue to develop. We will draw plenty of other businesses."

Critics, however, say the pollution around Baikalsk is precisely what has stopped businesses from investing in the lakeside city.

Biologist Marina Rikhvanova, who heads the Baikal Wave support group in Irkutsk, said the region doesn't need the paper mill to develop its economy.

"I am absolutely convinced that Baikalsk has a wonderful future that lies in the development of tourism, in the release of 'Baikalsk waters,' and the production of clean and safe products that we can be proud of," Rikhvanova says. "This is why we want to wish Baikalsk a good and happy future. We are against the opening of the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill and for a new future for Baikalsk."

Lake Baikal is the world's oldest and deepest lake. It contains 20 percent of the world's total unfrozen freshwater reserves and is known for its largely endemic fauna and flora.

In 1996, Lake Baikal was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and environmentalists have called on the organization to help fight plans to reopen the plant and resume dumping in its waters, the plans for which were approved last month by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The campaign against the Baikalsk paper mill comes amid growing public unrest in a number of Russian regions that reflect mounting frustration with the federal government.

The plant is controlled by LPK Continental Management, which is part of the industrial group run by Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch who is seen as enjoying close ties to the Kremlin.

The presence of several Moscow-based politicians at today's protest meeting shows that the controversy surrounding Baikalsk is not just about the environment.

Vladimir Milov, a leader of the Solidarity opposition movement, was among those who traveled from Moscow for the rally.

"Today, authorities are once again encroaching on Lake Baikal," Milov said. "It depends on you only, residents of Irkutsk and the regions around our sacred Lake Baikal, whether we are able this time again to counter the government's dangerous politics, whose real aim is not to save the jobs of 1,500 mill employees but to help the oligarch Deripaska make more money."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report