Russia's environmental movement falls on hard times

June 22, 1994

By Irina Glushchenko

MOSCOW — If Russia's economic crisis has brought any benefit, it has been to small animals. During the past two years there have been more hares in the forests, and more mice in the fields. In Siberian rivers, there are noticeably more fish.

For lack of fuel, aerial spraying of crops with herbicides has largely ceased. As industrial production has slumped, many factories now pollute the atmosphere and nearby rivers to a markedly lesser extent.

On the whole, however, the last two years have been anything but idyllic for the environment. If "normal", everyday pollution has diminished, emissions of dangerous substances have increased. With funds acutely short, enterprises stop repairing pollution control devices and replacing expensive filters.

According to a report by the Environment Ministry, in the summer of 1993 strict observance of environmental legislation would have forced more than 60% of enterprises into bankruptcy. The government makes few funds available for environmental protection, and provides no substantial incentives for firms to limit their impact on the environment.

Russia's 15 nuclear power plants, which account for 12% of electricity generation, are owed vast sums by the state energy network. A statement released on June 6 by the nuclear energy workers' union charged that "planned measures for the maintenance of safety" at the plants had been stopped.

Experts categorise more than 15% of Russia's territory as environmental disaster areas. As much as 60% of the country's population lives in these zones. Over 10 years, the number of children with chronic illnesses has doubled.

Waste imports

Moreover, Russia is among the handful of countries that voluntarily import pollutants. One of the few businesses in which Russia has shown itself to be competitive is the burial of radioactive wastes from other countries.

To have radioactive waste reprocessed in Russia, clients pay a fraction of the price elsewhere, and the Russian authorities also agree to take care of the residues. Finland, for example, pays $US400 per kilogram of wastes. For one trainload of radioactive wastes, Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry received $11.6 million. For similar reprocessing in Britain, the Finns would have to pay no less than $28 million. In addition, they would receive back all the residues from reprocessing, and also contaminated equipment.

In choosing to build a nuclear power station using Soviet technology, Finland insisted on being able to export wastes to Russia at least until 1996. The Russian authorities argued, however, that all wastes should be sent to Russia at least until 1999. Russia has also been importing wastes from Hungary.

Almost the only group protesting against the import of radioactive wastes has been the international organisation Greenpeace. During a Greenpeace action in Finland, the only Russian participant, Greenpeace activist Dmitry Litvinov, was arrested by Finnish police. On returning to Russia, he gave an interview to the newspaper Izvestia, in which he noted that the agreement with Finland contravened Russian laws.

"I'm at a loss to understand why Greenpeace had to mount this action", Litvinov stated, "when it's clear that what's going on is against the law". In Russia itself, there have been no recent mass protests against either the importing of radioactive wastes or environmental pollution in general. Declarations by activists of the green movement that the country is being transformed into a radioactive garbage dump have had very little effect.


During the relatively prosperous days of early perestroika, the environmental movement could bring thousands of people onto the streets. Now the movement has fallen into decline. The Russian Party of Greens, when it tried to run independently in the December 1993 elections, was unable to gather the 100,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot. To a significant degree this was due to the party's short-sighted policy of refusing to collaborate with left-wing forces.

The Constructive-Ecological Movement of Russia (KEDR) did win ballot status, but despite its name, this organisation scarcely belonged among the pro-environment forces. In its program and political methods, KEDR was a typical right-centrist bloc uniting various central and local bosses who were not on other candidate lists. Apart from a certain amount of environmentalist rhetoric, KEDR's policies differed little from those of the centrist Civic Union.

The Civic Union failed to attract the 5% of votes needed to win seats in the Duma. KEDR was far behind even the Civic Union, receiving 0.1% of the votes and taking last place among all the electoral slates.

Journalists link the decline of the green movement with the economic crisis. "The smog hanging over the city and the growing incidence of disease", the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta remarked recently, "seem much lesser evils than the far more palpable threats of unemployment, poverty and the energy crisis".

However, the decline of the environmental movement also has another, no less important cause. Protests by the greens in the late 1980s signified the rise of civil society. People came out onto the streets because they believed in the possibility of changing their lives. Environmental slogans became a unifying factor, helping people to become conscious of themselves as citizens responsible for the fate of the country.

The nomenklatura liberals made the maximum possible use of environmental issues when they needed to win the sympathies of the population and unmask the "totalitarian past". But this has been no more than a tactical ploy. The environmentalist rhetoric of the new Russian leaders has been just as empty of content as their democratic slogans.

Once the new structures of power were consolidated, the question of protecting nature was relegated to the background. The environmental movement shared the fate of the mass democratic movements. Many of the rank and file participants in the environmental actions of the 1980s sensed that they had been used. Demoralised and disappointed, large numbers of them abandoned any kind of social activism.

The struggle against the destruction of the environment continues. But now, it is becoming an integral part of the struggle against the Yeltsin regime, against the authoritarian bureaucracy and against capitalist restoration.

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