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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Governor Pledges Funds to Mill Strikers

ST. PETERSBURG -- The governor of the Leningrad region has said the region will make a small start at paying wage debts to striking workers at a paper mill near Vyborg -- and, taking a more ominous tone, said the administration will take the plant's new owners to court if they do not pay the rest.

Regional Governor Vadim Gustov told workers from the Vyborg Paper and Cellulose Mill, or VTsBK, who picketed the administration's offices last Friday, that his government would give the workers 2 million rubles ($330,000) by Monday.

He said officials would try to bring the plant's new owners, Cyprus-based Nimonor Investments Ltd., to the bargaining table at the factory Friday.

If this is unsuccessful, Gustov said, the region's administration will take Nimonor to court to annul the company's purchase agreement. It will also take the company to court if it does not pay its obligations, he said.

The 2,100 workers at VTsBK, located 190 kilometers northwest of St. Petersburg in the village of Sovietsky, have been striking since early February, when they took over the plant and refused to let the new owners in.

The blockade was soon joined by townspeople in Sovietsky, and residents and workers have twice threatened to blockade the Scandinavian highway in Vyborg, closing down one of the most important cargo arteries from northern Europe to Russia.

Among their demands are that the new owners pay wage debts they say total $8.1 million, and a federal tax debt of $83 million. They also allege that Nimonor plans to fire all VTsBK's workers and liquidate the mill.

But Mark Rhodes, Nimonor's representative in Russia, has said he plans to maintain "a majority" of the positions at the mill and has no plans to liquidate. He has also said he bought only the plant's assets, not its liabilities, and is thus not liable for the wage or tax debt.

Rhodes appeared to offer an olive branch to workers Friday, inviting a 25-member delegation to the Grand Hotel Europe for talks.

But he was rebuffed.

"We said that today we could not go and invited him to come to the factory to work [with us] instead," strike committee spokesman Lev Chanatayev said in an interview on the picket lines at the region's administration building.

"Nimonor isn't anywhere to be seen," strike committee chairman Osip Kikibush said. "I see [Rhodes'] invitation to the hotel as just the latest phrase-mongering."

According to a secretary at his Moscow offices, Rhodes was traveling Monday and could not be reached for comment.

About 150 workers hired buses to make the trip from Sovietsky to St. Petersburg for Friday's demonstration.

The crowd of mostly middle-aged workers and villagers stood on the square in front of the oblast administration offices holding banners that read: "Governor, do not let us die of hunger," and "We want to live and work like normal people."

Gustov told the crowd during the 1 1/2 hour meeting that all sides in the dispute are invited to Friday's meeting, which is to be held at the factory and where a bankruptcy manager will present his findings on the factory's long-term prospects.

It is unclear whether Rhodes, who has said he feels "threatened" by the workers' tactics of taking over the mill, will attend.

Toward the end of Friday's demonstration, workers were placing hope in the administration but said they would follow through on earlier plans to blockade the highway as a last resort if the March 6 talks fell flat. "If we do not get an answer [to our demands], we will just lie in the road," he said.