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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Angry Putin rips into top oligarch - ST 6 June 2009

Angry Putin rips into top oligarch
Premier accuses tycoon of greed; likens factory owners to cockroaches

'You have made thousands of people hostage to your ambitions, your lack of professionalism - or maybe simply your trivial greed.' -- Mr Putin (left) to Mr Deripaska (right) -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PIKALYOVO (RUSSIA): Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin publicly humiliated a top oligarch, accusing him and other factory owners in a crisis-hit town of greed and likening them to 'cockroaches'.
Mr Putin, playing on the anger of protesting workers in the town of Pikalyovo, forced Mr Oleg Deripaska, a top metals tycoon and once Russia's richest man, to sign a contract for supplies to help idle factories restart operations.

'You have made thousands of people hostage to your ambitions, your lack of professionalism - or maybe simply your trivial greed,' he told Mr Deripaska and two other businessmen who own cement and alumina factories in the town in a confrontation broadcast on television.

'Where is the social responsibility of business?'

Mr Putin arrived at Pikalyovo by helicopter on Thursday, where hungry workers blocked a motorway this week to protest over unpaid salaries, as world business leaders gathered for Russia's premier annual economic summit in St Petersburg, 270km away.

He rounded on Mr Deripaska and the two other businessmen, making a veiled threat to expropriate their property unless they sorted out the situation quickly.

'Why was everyone running around like cockroaches before my arrival? Why was no one capable of taking decisions?' Mr Putin said as Mr Deripaska stared blankly.

'Has Oleg Vladimirovich (Deripaska) signed? I do not see your signature. Come here and sign it,' Mr Putin said, throwing a pen dismissively onto the table.

His head hanging low like a schoolboy, the once-mighty oligarch walked up to the Premier's table, read the document covering raw material supplies to the factories and added his signature.

Meanwhile, US$1.5 million (S$2.16 million) in back wages flowed into citizens' bank accounts, and lines appeared in front of cash dispensers all over the city.

After the meeting, workers cheered Mr Putin as he told them the problems at the plants had been resolved. The Premier's spokesman, Mr Dmitry Peskov, said Mr Putin had been 'quite strict'.

Mr Putin's intervention in Pikalyovo comes as similar economic troubles unfold across Russia's industrial heartland, despite the recent rise in world oil prices, which has relieved budgetary pressures on the Kremlin.

There are at least 400 Russian 'mono-cities', places like Pikalyovo (population 22,000) where the shuttering of a single factory could throw a whole population into crisis.

Since late last year, sociologists have debated whether these towns had the potential to explode - or whether Russians would quietly adapt to hardship, as they had in the past. For months, evidence has pointed to the latter.

But that calculus changed this week in Pikalyovo, where many workers had been surviving on staples like cabbage soup and becoming progressively angrier.

When the local utility shut off the town's hot water over unpaid wages last month, a group forced its way into the mayor's office. On Tuesday, several hundred people blocked a federal highway for six hours. The next step, they said, was blocking the railroad, or a hunger strike.

'The signal here is simple. The crisis and other difficulties cannot serve as an indulgence from social responsibility and you cannot solve your problems without taking care of people, you cannot try to put all responsibilities on the shoulders of the state,' Mr Peskov said. 'They (businessmen) were not thinking about people at all.'

During his visit, Mr Putin took pains to say he did not approve of the workers' protest actions, and even suggested that demonstrators had been paid. But the police did not disperse Pikalyovo's demonstrators, mostly middle-aged women who had logged decades at the factory.

Citizens here said they could never have attracted Mr Putin's attention if it were not for the protests.

Pikalyovo 'is not dying, it is already practically dead', said Mr Alexander Kruglov, 26. 'People were so worried about their families that they went out into the street. I think it is the only way to defend yourself.'

That message could resonate in other industrial towns. Mr Mikhail Viktorovich Shmakov, chairman of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions, said on Thursday that the protest mood was rising in 'many one-factory towns', among them Tsvetlogorsk and Baikalsk, where 42 employees of a paper mill have begun a hunger strike over unpaid wages.

ASSOCIATED PRESS, NEW YORK TIMES

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