By Jeremy Bransten
Baikalsk, Russia; July 8 (RFE/RL) -- Many names are used to describe Russia's Lake Baikal: most often, it is called the Pearl of Siberia or simply the Sacred Sea.
Baikal is the world's deepest and most ancient lake. Its shores are home to nearly 2,000 endemic species and 20 percent of the planet's liquid fresh water. In summer, Baikal's exceptionally clean, richly-oxygenated water can be drunk straight, being purer than most bottled mineral waters. In winter, that water is covered by a transparent layer of ice over a meter thick. If you have the stamina, you can walk the over 50 kilometers from one shore of Baikal to the other.
Baikal's crystal-clear, mineral-free water is the key to the lake's uniqueness and the reason why Moscow decided, some 30 years ago, to build the Baikalsk Cellulose Paper Plant along its shore. The space race with America was in full swing, and thousands of Communist Youth League workers were dispatched to Baikal to construct a factory that could produce "super cellulose," using Baikal's unique water, for the Soviet air force and space industry.
The plant opened in 1966. Many workers stayed and built homes around the belching factory. The town of Baikalsk was born. Today, 17,000 people live in Baikalsk. Of those, 3,500 are directly employed by the cellulose plant. The rest either have family members at the plant or are employed themselves by businesses tied to the plant. In Soviet times, factory management took care of everything in town, from repairing the sidewalks to heating the schools in winter. Now, the plant and Baikalsk's administration have formally split: the factory pays taxes to the town and the mayor's office fixes the roads.
But Vice-Mayor Andrei Durnykh says the difference is more in procedure than substance. Ninety-five percent of the town's budget still comes from the cellulose factory's tax contribution. And that tax contribution has grown in recent years, as the factory has found new export markets in China and neighboring Russian regions.
Factory profits grew from 3.6 million dollars in 1993 to over 30 million dollars in 1995. The cellulose produced here no longer goes into aircraft tires and booster rockets, but into viscose for garments - for which there is a much greater demand. Since last year, world cellulose prices have fallen, but Baikalsk's Cellulose Paper Plant remains that rarest of Russian assets: a profitable factory.
People live relatively well here. In the town of 17,000, there are nine kindergartens, three theaters, a brand-new sports center. Three and five-storey apartment blocks stand amid alleys of tall pines and birches. If it were not for the sulphurous odor which hangs over Baikalsk, one could forget about the factory. But the odor is omnispresent - it smells like cooking cabbage, but is in fact a far more dangerous brew of lignite, sulphur, chlorine and other chemicals.
The air pollution is one thing: most people here say they don't even notice it. It is the 200,000 cubic meters of spent water and chemicals that are discharged back into Lake Baikal each day that has raised an international outcry.
Concern over Baikalsk helped launch the enviromental movement in Russia, years before perestroika and the fall of Communism. A coalition of writers, scientists and civic leaders campaigned against the plant and for the preservation of the lake. Their efforts coul not stop the plant's construction, but they did ensure that the factory was built with the most modern water purification system of the day.
The head of the plant's water treatment facility is Nelly Tikhonova. She admits that "the tragedy is that the plant was built on Baikal." And she adds, "Had it been today, that would not have been necessary. We no longer need such pure water for cellulose manufacturing." But Tikhonova says international experts agree that if today's plant were standing anywhere else but on Lake Baikal, it would be considered a model of environmental cleanliness.
Waste water first goes through a biological treatment process, where is is cleansed of bacteria. It is then funneled into a series of outdoor pools the size of several football fields, where it undergoes chemical treatment. Aluminum particles are released into the water, where they clump together with lignite filaments. A third process, in yet another basin, filters the whole mix once again. The entire procedure takes 48 hours and by the time the water is released into Lake Baikal, it is clear with only a slight sulphurous aftertaste.
Tikhonova jokes that treated plant water is cleaner than what comes out of most taps in the former Soviet Union. Nevertheless, even plant administrators acknowledge that the cellulose factory is responsible for around one percent Baikal's yearly water pollution. And in a pristine eco-system such as Baikal's that may be one percent too many.
The irony is that large cities such as Ulan Ude, 150 kilometers away, and other factories farther upstream contribute more to Baikal's pollution than the Baikalsk plant. A recent investigation by the United Nation's Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) confirmed these findings. But unlike Ulan Ude, Baikalsk is a one-factory town and it is solely dependent on the cellulose plant for its very existence. If the factory were to shut tomorrow, as some ecologists would like, so would Baikalsk.
"Everyone discusses how to 'reprofile' the plant and all these Russian and international experts come here to inspect the factory," says Vice-Mayor Durnykh. "But no one ever discusses how to 'reprofile' the town. That makes no sense. You can't talk about changing the factory without changing Baikalsk," he adds.
That is a sentiment echoed all over town, and also at the Baikal Center for Ecological and Citizen Initiatives in the regional capital, Irkutsk. The center is a non-profit organization that promotes sustainable development along Baikal's shores.
Program Director Arkady Kalikhman says ecological concerns cannot be divorced from social ones. He points out that activists back in the 1960s were unable to prevent the plant's construction and he says they will not be able to close it now, if all they do is picket. Kalikhman concludes, "Local inhabitants, city authorities, ecologists and factory management must all come together to discuss new alternatives."
Just such a coalition is beginning to take shape in Baikalsk. A sister-city agreement with the American town of South Lake Tahoe in California has provided added impetus. Thirty years ago, South Lake Tahoe was a largely industrial lakeshore settlement. But over the years, a coalition of citizens and ecologists, working together with local authorities and industry helped re-orient industry and turn the area into a green belt.
Viktor Khotilovich now aims to duplicate the experience in Baikalsk. He runs the town's Ecological Education Center, which he opened himself after saving enough money through odd jobs to buy a dozen computers and rent two rooms in a local school. Khotilovich' center caters to 150 schoolchildren of all ages who come here after classes to learn about the environment through demonstrations and computer games.
Khotilovich cautions that it took South Lake Tahoe two years and 30 public meetings to draft a series of industrial reform proposals. He is just preparing for his second meeting of local activists and administration officials in a few days. But he is hopeful. Results of a survey which he distributed to local inhabitants show that over half thought industrial plants should not exist on the shores of Lake Baikal. At the same time, over two-thirds of those surveyed said they did not want the cellulose plant to close soon.
Khotilovich says alternatives to the factory range from building sanatoria to setting up strawberry farms. Thanks to the region's wet, cool climate, strawberries grow to the size of small apples here. No concrete plans have been drafted yet. But even if the cellulose plant continues to modernize, jobs will be shed, so that alternatives employment will have to be created in Baikalsk no matter what happens. Khotilovich recalls his visit to a similar plant in the United States, which he says produced twice the cellulose with one-tenth the employees.
Local radio correspondent Svetlana Volgina says she feels intuitively that Khotilovich and his coalition are on the right track, even if she remains a skeptic. Both her husband and son work at the cellulose plant. But Volgina, who was recently elected as Baikalsk's deputy to Irkutsk's regional legislature, says a solution must be found that will not overlook her constituents' interests.
"It hurts to hear all the abuse directed at Baikalsk from people who have never even come here to take a look," she says, and adds, "we love our city and our lake most of all. We put in the best years of our lives here and our children call it home. Baikal is unique, but aren't its people unique as well?"
By Jeremy Bransten
Irkutsk, Russia, June 28 (RFE/RL) -- Galina Konstantinidi never thought she would start a business. For a trained economist with a steady job at the state bank, a husband and a young child, life seemed already settled. But then Communism fell in Russia and everything that had seemed settled suddenly became very uncertain.
Galina decided it was time for a new start. She wanted, she explains, "to test myself for the first time in my life." She quit her job, left her husband and signed on as a distributor for an upstart office supply company called Grafika M.
There was one problem: Grafika M was in Moscow and Galina was in Irkutsk, 5,000 kilometers away in eastern Siberia. But that did not stop her. Galina took orders in Irkutsk, enlisted three friends, and flew to Moscow with several empty suitcases. She came back with an assortment of pens, inkpads and staplers. They sold out within hours. Galina had become one of the first businesswomen in Irkutsk. That was four years ago. Today, Galina Konstantinidi runs Grafika M Irkutsk from a plush office suite outfitted in the latest Scandinavian furniture. She has 30 employees and two retail stores. The cellular phone never leaves her side.
"We've reached a new stage in our business," she says, "but every year has been a struggle. Now that there's more competition, we've got to attain a new level of quality. That's what we're striving for, but I think we're going to get there." Galina travels widely now, from Korea to the United Arab Emirates, always learning, always picking up new tactics. It is not easy. Government taxes still swallow up 80 percent of her profits and as for the local mafia, they also demand their share. Galina says there is no choice but to pay them protection money.
She explains, "The government doesn't defend us and so we have to constantly compromise - just to stay in business." But despite the difficulties, Galina is optimistic. "I believe in Russia and want to live and work here," she says, adding, "after all, I still remember standing in line with my daughter for milk rations - and that was less than a decade ago."
Nikolai Ivanov is barking orders into the phone from his office on the outskirts of Irkutsk. His desk is filled with phones. Ivanov wears a double-breasted burgundy suit and yellow power tie. He is the general director of the Baikal Business Center, a 22 million dollar office and hotel complex that will open this September on a lot near the airport.
The building, a ten-storey ultra modern chrome and glass complex, is already the first of its kind in eastern Siberia. Ivanov means to make it the headquarters for top Western and Asian companies. Several of them, including the American telecommunications giant AT&T, and the Korean conglomerate Daewoo, have already paid their rent deposits.
The project is being funded by IrkutskEnergo, the region's monopoly energy supplier and its largest employer, in partnership with a local trading firm called BaikalSnab. Both companies expect to regain their investment in little time. The construction workers are from the former Yugoslavia, the building materials from Germany, Italy and Turkey and the business center's Russian staff will be trained by a Belgrade consulting firm.
Irkutsk has never seen anything like it. Ivanov says the city should be grateful for his efforts, but he wants its bureaucrats to stay away from the project, lest they "mess it up" he says, "as they always seem to manage.' Despite its prospering new capitalists, Irkutsk still has a way to go before it can equal its turn-of-the-century reputation as a mercantile center. And the city's decrepit Soviet infrastructure will take even longer to repair.
"We're still two years behind Moscow," says Galina Konstantinidi. Modern goods are almost all imported, as Irkutsk, like all Russian regions, lacks any kind of quality light industry. Nevertheless, store shelves are full, and for a landlocked city whose nearest foreign neighbor is Mongolia, that is an achievement.
More than that, Irkutsk, which once stood on the periphery of the Soviet empire, is now plugged into the world community. The airport offers direct flights to Japan and Korea, and not just Moscow. The Moribund Intourist Hotel, which stodgily upholds its reputation for Soviet-style service, has made one concession to progress and now broadcasts CNN.
Dozens of non-governmental organizations have stepped in to fill the gap left by the state and now provide everything from free legal advice to counseling on educational opportunities abroad. Door-to-door toothpaste and shampoo salesmen have even started to become a nuisance downtown. To be sure, this link to the world remains tenuous and it coexists side-by-side with rusting factories and wounded pride. But the pull between Slavophiles and Westernizers has been the defining feature of modern Russian history since Peter the Great. And since that time, so has the coexistence in Russia of obsolete and brand-new technologies.
Sometimes, progress is best measured at the most prosaic level. Maria Safonova, who runs a local non-profit information center, says she remembers craving bananas when she first visited America. She noticed the bananas were sold in large bunches in every grocery store, but no one seemed to especially want them. It struck her as strange.
But upon returning to Irkutsk, where bananas were now for sale on every street corner, Safonova discovered to her great amusement that she no longer craved them.
By Jeremy Bransten
Irkutsk, Russia, June 27.1996 (RFE/RL) -- The poplars are blooming in Siberia, blanketing the streets of Irkutsk with white feathery seeds, like a dusting of summer snow. It is an unusual sight, this summer snow. But, as locals claim, Irkutsk is an unusual city.
Once an isolated frontier town, connected to the rest of Russia by a single muddy track, Irkutsk became an overnight intellectual center in the last century, thanks to the legions of dissidents exiled here by the Tsar. The city also grew into a rich merchant town, exploiting its position as a trading post between Russia and China. Soviet times were crueler to Irkutsk: trade with China was halted, the intellectuals were liquidated, high-rise towers and factories were thrown up all around.
Today's Irkutsk looks like most other post-Soviet cities: a dusty urban sprawl of collapsing concrete, which occasionally reveals glimpses of a more prosperous past. Walk around the downtown neighborhoods of sagging wooden houses with their delicately carved eaves, and it is still possible to imagine that time. Imagining the past is something everyone does in Irkutsk on occasion, but most people would prefer to look to the future. Yet less than a week before the final round of Russian presidential elections, there is little official debate about the way forward. The campaign has nearly ground to a halt.
Heads may be rolling in the Kremlin, 5,000 kilometers distant, but here in Irkutsk, you would hardly know the country is on the eve of a national election. The streets are awash in poplar seeds, but little else. And Moscow, which remains four days' train journey away for most people, still seems remote.
The local manager of President Boris Yeltsin's re-election campaign, Vladimir Matienko, claims Yeltsin has already succeeded in getting his message out. He says results from the first round of voting on June 16, indicate that Yeltsin can count on support in the city of Irkutsk and the other four main cities in the vast Irkutsk region.
Matienko has already conceded the region's rural areas and small towns, which overwhelmingly voted Communist in the first ballot. He notes that the urban population outweighs the rural population, and he adds, "it's a numbers game. All of our staff's efforts are now concentrated on achieving maximum voter turnout - especially in the big cities."
Most observers agree that since an overwhelming proportion of Communist supporters are sure to come to the polls on July 3, high voter participation will favor Yeltsin, while low turnout will help his challenger, Gennady Zyuganov.
To this end, Matienko is pulling out all the stops. Rock bands have been ordered from Moscow for a weekend outdoor concert in Irkutsk. Newspapers have been directed to print banner headlines on the eve of balloting, urging readers to vote. Local officials have been recruited, as has the public transportation network, which will offer free rides on voting day.
Matienko smiles, "Even the police have been instructed to patrol on the eve of the election and give people friendly reminders to vote." Along the banks of the Angara River, young people are making the most of Irkutsk's short summer: strolling, picnicking, drinking. And they say they will not need police to remind them to vote. Most are not interested in politics, but nearly all claim they will come to the polls to support Yeltsin. As Volodya, a university student, puts it, "This is about the future." His girlfriend nods, paraphrasing a Yeltsin campaign slogan, "It's about our generation's future."
Yuri Pronin, political correspondent for Eastern Siberian Pravda, one of Irkutsk's two principal newspapers, says urban areas in the Irkutsk region are weathering the effects of economic reforms, thanks to the region's abundant natural resources. Irkutsk region produces a surplus of hydroelectric energy, which it can now sell both abroad and to other Russian regions on its own terms, following an economic sovereignty agreement recently signed with Moscow. The region also has Russia's second largest aluminum plant, which exports most of its production, as well as several paper mills.
Unlike many other parts of Russia, Irkutsk is home to few defense industries - the sector most hard-hit by market reforms. As a result, says Pronin, workers get more regular wages than in the rest of Russia and social tensions are comparatively lower.
But he cautions that the potential Communist electorate remains varied. Pronin adds, "It's not just a case of pensioners and farmers voting for Zyuganov." Disaffected workers remain and the 25 percent of voters in the Irkutsk region who cast their ballots for liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky and retired General Aleksandr Lebed in the first round cannot be counted on to automatically switch loyalties to Yeltsin. Some could vote Communist or more likely, "none of the above," which exists as a third option. Disaffected best describes the atmosphere at Communist Party headquarters across town, in a musty room of the public library. Two elderly men sit hunched over a pile of mimeographed sheets. The local campaign director, only slightly younger, sits at her desk, facing a bust of Lenin draped in a velvet red banner.
Nina Bakanova, a former professor of Russian, speaks softly, but her eyes are angry. She says the Communist loss in Irkutsk and other cities in the region can be explained by several "objective" reasons: a near total lack of access to the media and fraudulent vote counts.
Bakanova takes out a carefully annotated copy of the official ballot results and points to the thousands of unregistered voters who were suddenly added to the rolls during the last hours of polling. The numbers add up to less than one percent of the total, but Bakanova says what matters is the principle.
She holds up a copy of the Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) report on the election, which criticized the lack of balance in official media coverage of the campaign. She says this time around, the Communists have prepared new TV commercials, but the local station will only air them at 5 p.m., when most people are still at work. There will be no street rallies to support Zyuganov before the second round - there is no money. Bakanova speaks of the Communists' concern for young families, the environment, the human condition. If the message could only get out, she says, "what's done is done. We are looking to the future."
But if the Communists are looking forward, a visitor asks, why do they still cling to their old party name and symbols? Bakanova answers, "Maybe we could have gotten more votes if we had recast ourselves as Social Democrats. But we couldn't do that. The idea of Communism lives, and after all, it is even one espoused by our Orthodox Church."
Today's Communists, says Bakanova, remain idealists - indeed, like the early Christians, almost martyrs. "We keep having elections and the wrong people keep winning,' she shrugs. Her eyes drift away and then quickly refocus. "Let me write your name down," she demands, "so that you won't write any lies about us."
Date: 7 March 1997
Article: Irkutsk Governor Yurii Nozhikov on 1 March halted the oblast's payment of federal taxes, complaining that Irkutsk gave 4 trillion rubles ($700 million) to the federal budget in 1996 and got nothing in return. He also noted that the oblast owes 600 billion rubles in unpaid wages to budget organization workers. But during his visit to Moscow on 4 March, Nozhikov agreed to end his "tax revolt," Segodnya reported on 5 March. He met with Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, who promised to transfer 310 billion rubles to Irkutsk in 1997; and with Procurator-General Yurii Skuratov, who threatened him with legal action if he did not resume tax payments. Tula Governor Nikolai Sevrugin and Krasnodar Governor Nikolai Kondratenko have also threatened to stop paying taxes to Moscow if federal debts to their regions are not paid. -- Peter Rutland
Article: Irkutsk Governor Yurii Nozkikov has ordered that the oblast stop making payments to the federal budget as of 1 March, ITAR-TASS reported on 3 March. The money will be allocated to the oblast budget to pay wages in the social sector. Wage arrears in the oblast have reached 2 trillion rubles ($360 million). Nozhikov's move follows a trip to Moscow last week in which he met with federal officials, including Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and made demands totaling some 3 trillion rubles, Radio Rossii reported. -- Robert Orttung
Article: Robert Sheptalin, the editor of the Irkutsk newspaper Zemlya-Novyi poryadok, and Aleksandr Shakhmatov, a member of the paper's staff, have been arrested on charges of extorting a large bribe from a businessman. The newspaper is well- known locally for its reports on corruption in the Irkutsk Procurator's Office, and the local offices of the Interior Ministry, judiciary, and executive, ITAR-TASS reported on 18 February. The Irkutsk procurator has informed members of the regional legislature that an unnamed local businessman contacted the authorities complaining that the two journalists initially wanted $1,000 for not publishing an article critical of him and then demanded $20,000. The reporters were allegedly arrested while taking the money. -- Robert Orttung
Article: Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Bolshakov and Chinese Central Military Council Deputy Chairman Liu Huaqing signed a military-technical cooperation agreement in Beijing on 11 December, Russian and Western agencies reported. While details of the accord were not released, Bolshakov said Russia is "determined to expand" military cooperation with China, according to AFP. The agency also reported that an accord allowing China to produce SU-27 fighters under license was finalized during Bolshakov's visit, and cited Valery Mikhailov, head of the Russian government's military industry department, as saying that future arms contracts with China will be worth "billions of dollars." Russian officials often cite increased military cooperation with China as a possible response to NATO enlargement. Bolshakov's delegation also discussed possible Russian participation in the Three Gorges hydroelectric project, and proposed oil and gas pipelines to run from Irkutsk through Mongolia and northern China. -- Scott Parrish
Article: Work at a majority of district courts in St. Petersburg has ground to a halt due to a lack of funds, RIA Novosti reported on 10 October. Only two of 20 district courts are operating, and they may also cease functioning on 17 October. Judges, who do not have the right to strike, are still turning up for work, but court clerks and other personnel have left their offices in protest at their low wages and long delays in their payment. According to Nezavisimaya gazeta on 11 October, during the first nine months of the year courts received less than two-thirds of the money provided for in the budget. It noted, among other examples, that judicial workers in Tver have not been paid since August, that the Irkutsk Oblast Court has virtually stopped work, and that judges' telephones in Krasnoyarsk and Kemerovo oblasts have been cut due to non-payment of bills. -- Penny Morvant
Article: Teachers in many Russian regions staged protests on 7 October to demand the payment of wage arrears, reliable state funding for education, and constitutional recognition of the government's responsibility for education, ITAR-TASS reported. Similar protests occurred on 4 October. According to the teachers' union, wage arrears topped 3.4 trillion rubles ($630 million) on 1 October. Many teachers in Arkhangelsk, Irkutsk, Pskov, and Chita Oblasts have not been paid for seven months. Strikes have been held at 3,300 educational establishments over the past six months, and 578 schools failed to begin the new school year on 2 September. -- Penny Morvant
Article: Chernomyrdin recently signed another decree ordering the FEK to introduce from October a new system of regional prices for electricity producers, Segodnya reported on 25 July. The new system would oblige the holding company Unified Energy System to charge the same price for electricity in Siberia and the Far East, thereby subsidizing the latter region. The plan has drawn strong protests from Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk, who fear that the resulting higher energy price will make some of their industries (such as the Krasnoyarsk Aluminum Plant) unprofitable. -- Peter Rutland
Article: First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets, speaking in Irkutsk on 11 June, said that 35% of industrial enterprises and 59% of transport firms are now technically bankrupt, ITAR-TASS reported. By the end of April, indebtedness in the economy totaled 719 trillion rubles ($140 million)--about 40% of GDP--of which 314 trillion rubles are overdue. Late payments to the budget totaled 67 trillion rubles by the end of March, including 26 trillion rubles to the federal budget. Western economists differ over whether inter-firm debt is really a crushing burden for the Russian economy; even developed market economies have inter-firm credits of around 15% of GDP. -- Peter Rutland
Article: At a Kremlin ceremony on 27 May, President Yeltsin signed two power-sharing agreements: one with Irkutsk Oblast and the Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous Okrug (AO), and a another with the Republic of Chuvashiya, Russian media reported. Yeltsin hailed the trilateral agreement with Irkutsk Oblast and the Ust-Orda Buryat AO as unique among the 14 similar agreements that the federal government has signed with other constituent members of the Russian Federation. It outlines the division of powers and responsibilities between Moscow, Irkutsk, and the Ust-Orda Buryat AO, located within Irkutsk Oblast. Posturing as the builder of a new, stronger Russian state, Yeltsin argued that the power sharing agreements had already proven themselves as the basis of a new federalism in Russia, which he said was based on the principle of giving the regions "the kind of independence which they can handle...within the framework of the constitution." -- Scott Parrish
Article: Aeroflot Russian International Airlines announced on 6 March that it would be leasing four more widebodied A310s from the French producer Airbus Industrie, ITAR-TASS reported. The planes are equipped with engines from the U.S. firm Pratt and Whitney. Russia acquired five airbuses, its first foreign planes, in 1992. Uzbek Air and Sakha Air each has two A310s. Meanwhile, in Irkutsk customs officials seized a Boeing 757 leased to Air Baikal (a Russian-U.K. joint venture), demanding a $25 million import duty, the Wall Street Journal reported on 6 March. This despite the fact that the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission had agreed at its 30 January meeting to exempt leased U.S. aircraft from import tariffs. -- Peter Rutland
Article: On 4 January, Irkutsk Oblast Governor Yurii Nozhikov signed a decree that extends the regional legislative assembly's term in office, which was slated to end on March 1996, for two more years, ITAR-TASS reported the next day. Nozhikov said he extended the assembly's original two-year term because of "the need to finish the formation of regional and local legislative bases." The decree requires that the next election be held no later than March 1998. -- Anna Paretskaya