VNUKOVO, Russia (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev criticized Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's government on Thursday for ignoring environmental problems, and said he was ready to throw the weight of his presidency behind the issue.
At a meeting with government officials and ecologists near Moscow, Medvedev, who rarely criticizes the prime minister, said Putin's decision to reopen the Baikal Pulp and Paper plant mill that ecologists say poisons the world's largest freshwater lake is not final.
"Ecology is moving to the bottom of the agenda. In a crisis you have to pay people. Who cares about ecology? This is our mental problem," Medvedev said. "The problem is the attitude of the leadership of the country to ecology."
"I would like the government to directly express itself on this issue. Let them stand up and say: 'We do not want major projects aimed at solving long-term ecological damage'," Medvedev added.
Medvedev is a close ally of Putin and the prime minister is widely seen as the ultimate arbitrator of policy in Russia. But in recent months the president has moved to carve out a larger role for himself on the international stage and in domestic politics.
A survey by the Levada center released on Thursday found that 42 percent of Russians believe Medvedev is independent of Putin's influence, up from 19 percent a year ago. Forty-four percent of the 1,600 people polled said Putin was in control.
Putin, who is on a visit to Finland, was not present at the meeting.
Controlled by Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska, the plant that makes pulp, paper and cardboard in the area surrounding Lake Baikal, about 5,000 km (3,100 miles) east of Moscow, was mothballed in 2008 in a row over pollution.
Putin in January ordered the mill reopened and officials at the plant have said they plan to restart it before the end of May.
The mill employs about 2,000 people and is the main employer in the town of Baikalsk, which has a population of 17,000. It also runs the only heating station in the town, where temperatures plunge to minus 30 C (-22 F) in the winter.
Environmental groups have long attacked the mill, saying it threatens the lake which harbors 1,500 species of animals and plants, including a unique type of freshwater seal.
Putin, after personally inspecting Baikal last year, said that scientists had told him the mill does not harm the lake, which holds one fifth of the world's total surface fresh water and is revered as sacred by Siberian tribes.
Medvedev rejected suggestions that discussion of the paper mill was taboo because Putin had made a ruling on it. "The theme is not closed... who said it is taboo?" he said.
Challenged by an activist to push through tough environmental decisions, Medvedev said: "If you just tell me in time, I will take the decision of a commander."