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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Drug Plant Ouster Sparks Bitter Rally

Workers of a secretive, high-security pharmaceutical plant staged a rally Thursday to oppose the dismissal of their general director.

About 100 workers of the Moscow Endocrine Plant, or MEZ, gathered outside the plant's building in southeastern Moscow demanding the reinstatement of Yevgeny Sharokhin, the plant's director of the past 10 years, who was sacked unexpectedly last month.

The protesters, bundled up against the biting cold, waved posters saying "The Future of the Plant is With Sharokhin" and "Bring Back Director Sharokhin" and even called on President Vladimir Putin to get involved, reminding him that they had all voted for him last March.

MEZ, a top producer of insulin in Soviet times, is now a major supplier of highly regulated medicines used primarily in oncological treatment. With such drugs — classified as narcotics — accounting for more than half of the state-owned facility's 78 kinds of medicine, the plant is flooded with police guards and holds a special license from the Federal Security Service, or FSB. A team of FSB monitors occupy offices on the plant's grounds.

Many of the plant's 660 workers fear that a management reshuffle could jeopardize the relative economic prosperity at the plant, which had net profits of 124 million rubles ($4.37 million) last year.

"No one cared about the plant when it wasn't making anything," said Tatyana Vladyko, one of the protesting workers, adding that under Sharokhin working conditions had greatly improved and new equipment had been purchased. Sharokhin said the average worker's monthly salary is 7,500 rubles, four times higher than the Moscow average as determined by City Hall last fall.

Sharokhin's contract expired Jan. 31, and the government opted not to renew it. Workers said a representative of the Industry, Science and Technology Ministry, which oversees the plant, told them the ministry preferred to find someone younger.

Sharokhin, 53, said his contract was not renewed because he did not succumb to pressure "from above" to transfer the right to sell and distribute medicines and purchase the components used to make the drugs to commercial companies. Sharokhin declined to say who had told him to do so.

A spokesman for the Industry, Science and Technology Ministry said he would not comment before Monday.

Two weeks ago, Moscow's Kuntsevo court suspended the ministry's decision to sack Sharokhin until both sides are ready to present their arguments at a hearing scheduled to take place later this month. The ministry reacted by promptly announcing an open competition for the general director's post. A board of officials from several governmental agencies would do the choosing if such a competition were to be held.

Sharokhin said he would take part in the competition, but called both it and the publicity around the plant the ministry's big mistake.

"Now the entire country knows the address of the place where narcotics are produced," Sharokhin said, adding that workers had been noticing what they described as "mafia gang vehicles" parked near the plant, with people in them taking down the numbers of the plant's delivery trucks.