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Putin douses one labor fire, but what about the other hundred smoldering?

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MOSCOW – An outbreak of long-predicted unrest among Russia's crisis-hit workers sent the Kremlin hurtling into damage control this week, while experts warned that mass disturbances in the western town of Pikalyovo could be the leading edge of a much larger approaching storm.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rushed to the area on Thursday after about 500 angry workers blockaded a major highway to protest unpaid wages, backing up traffic for more than 200 miles.

Mr. Putin took a huge gamble, experts say, by siding unambiguously with the workers, raking the owners of three failing local factories over the coals, and ordering that all wage arrears be paid by today.

"You have made thousands of people hostages to your ambitions, your lack of professionalism – or maybe simply your trivial greed," Putin said in a televised meeting with local officials and the businessmen, including powerful Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska.

"Why was everyone running around like cockroaches before my arrival?" Putin added. "Why was no one capable of making decisions?"

Almost a quarter of the population of Pikalyovo, a town of 21,000 about 130 miles southeast of St. Petersburg, have lost their jobs so far this year. The three plants that have stalled, which produce cement and aluminum, are the region's only big employers.

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