By Maria Antonova
Police raided a Siberian environmental organization's office Thursday and confiscated several computers after a search for unlicensed software, a move that the group said was likely prompted by their criticism of a plan to reopen Oleg Deripaska's pulp plant on Lake Baikal.
The Baikalsk Paper and Pulp Mills, situated on the world's largest body of fresh water, has been a frustration to environmentalists since the 1960s, but the government has been reluctant to close the plant permanently because it is the largest employer in Baikalsk, a town of 17,000 in the Irkutsk region.
Curiously, the raid came as Baikalsk's mayor and several employees of the plant were in Moscow for a news conference to drum up support for the mill and to deliver a thank-you note from workers to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who allowed the mill to reopen earlier this month.
A local police spokesperson told RIA-Novosti that the group, Baikal Wave, was raided after a citizen's tip that they were using unlicensed software. Police have often raided nongovernmental organizations and opposition publications, claiming to search for pirated programs or extremist material.
"All of our programs are licensed. They confiscated the computers without checking the license documents, saying they didn't have experts to look at them," Galina Kulebyakina, a member of Baikal Wave, told The Moscow Times from the regional prosecutor's office.
She and six other members were taken there after trying to prevent officers from the Irkutsk police's consumer markets and extremism departments from leaving with their computers.
"There were about eight people. They started to remove the computers without showing any warrants," Kulebyakina said. "The police then called the prosecutor's office and said we were holding them against their will, so they sent more people to bring us here against our will," she said.
The raid was most likely linked to Baikal Wave's efforts to keep Baikalsk Paper and Pulp Mills closed, she said.
It was not immediately clear why the offices were raided without officials who could check the software licenses. Calls to local police and prosecutors went unanswered Thursday.
"They need information in our computers," Kulebyakina said. "We are against restarting the mill."
Putin signed a decree Jan. 13 permitting mill owner LPK Continental Management, part of Deripaska'sBasic Element holding company, to restart production of pulp and paper and legalizing dumping waste into the lake.
The prime minister visited the bottom of Baikal in a submarine in August with scientists and later told reporters that he saw no signs of lasting environmental damage.
The plant had been idle since it was ordered closed in October 2008, and Baikalsk was unable to find employment for the mill's 1,500 workers, Mayor Valery Pintayev told the news conference in Moscow.
"Can you imagine what a scary, depressive period we went through in the past year? Now people are going happily to work for the first time," he said. "The morale in the town is drastically different".
But environmentalists are trying to rally public sentiment against the reopening, saying the Soviet-era plant should be scrapped rather than revived. Baikal Wave said last month that work to test the plant's equipment caused an explosion.
"Many specialists are not coming back to the plant because they were not guaranteed long-term employment. That was one cause of the explosion," Kulebyakina said by cell phone from Irkutsk.
But Arkady Akimov, CEO of Continental Management, told reporters that the claims of an explosion were a "provocation," and that checks by the Federal Service for Environmental, Technological and Atomic Inspection found that there had been no blast.
Despite the coordinated news conference, which was announced by Basic Element, Akimov and Pintayev gave conflicting responses to questions about what the plant would do once restarted and how long it would operate.
Pintayev said the mill would make bleached cellulose, "which requires an open production cycle," meaning that it would dump waste products into Baikal.
Akimov, however, denied that. He said Putin's order just allowed them to test their facilities so that they could eventually resume output of nonbleached cellulose, which is less expensive and would not require dumping waste.
"Everyone understands that the mill will be closed eventually," he added.
But Pintayev denied that there was any agreed deadline for wrapping up the facility's work. "We need about three years to create other development programs for the city," he said, citing tourism, bottling water and strawberry canning as possibilities.
Three workers were also flown in from Baikalsk to speak with reporters and deliver their letter to Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev thanking them for allowing them get back to work.
"If the water really were dirty, there would be no lobsters in it," said Grigory Lents, a cellulose cutter who told reporters that he has three children whom he takes to the lake.
"There are water lilies in Baikal," said Tatyana Krasilnikova, a shift leader at the plant.
Yury Maksimenko, an environmental expert for the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, said at the press conference that fish are actually "fatter next to where the waste drains are".
Baikal Wave has advocated for protection of Lake Baikal from encroaching industry for more than a decade and was last subjected to a search and confiscation of its computers in 2002, during their work to keep a controversial oil pipeline away from Baikal.
The group has also opposed plans to construct a nuclear waste treatment facility in Angarsk, on the Angara River, which flows into Baikal.
Baikal Wave's web site was down starting Thursday morning.
The Moscow Times