Soviet Greens becoming less 'mellow'

Wednesday, July 31, 1991

Interview by Renfrey Clarke

Chemistry graduate PAUL SOLER-SOLA has spent the past 10 months in the Soviet Union representing the US environmental organisation Ecologia. He has spent much of this time travelling through the USSR meeting environmentalists. In the concluding section of a two-part interview, he talks to RENFREY CLARKE about the growth of the Soviet environmental movement.

What sort of people are involved in the environmental movement in the USSR?

A lot of them are scientists who have become involved as a result of their education in fields such as biology. Ten or 15 years ago, scientists spent a lot of time working subtly to get the movement going. In Armenia I met a person from the green movement who described the way academics had written letters criticising the building of dams and atomic power stations. That had a certain impact, but it was a very mellow form of activism.

Today there's more involvement, and the scientists are more aggressive. They set up organisations and try to get the public involved. So increasingly you find people in the movement who don't have a scientific background.

I met a group of women who've formed an environmental group in Odessa. One of them is a writer, and one teaches in a technical college. They've had no formal education in the environment field, but they've been very effective. They've worked out how to use the government system, they've found scientists to work on their board, and they've found politicians who they can nominate, who they can get into parliament as people's deputies on a green platform.

What you're describing is basically a movement of the intelligentsia. Are there signs that the environmental movement is going to sink roots deeper than that — in the labour movement for example?

I would have expected this, since the environmental conditions here for workers are so bad that you'd think they'd want to do something about it. But often they'd rather rough it in dangerous factories, because they get paid big wages of 800 to 1000 roubles a month in certain situations. They can live better and retire earlier. A lot of workers are just concerned with surviving, so they take chances with their health and don't care much about the environment. That's a very difficult problem.

There are exceptions. In Krasnoyarsk I met a group of environmentalists who were mainly workers — it was the first time I'd come across such a group. They were largely concerned with

workers' safety legislation, and especially with the "right to know". I plan to get hold of US legislation that gives people the right to know what they're working with, and this group is going to translate it and publish it in their paper. But in general workers aren't active in this way. They've got too many other things to worry about.

So there's now a reasonable spread of environmental groups throughout the USSR?

At least in the major cities of each region, you're starting to get environmental movements. And it's surprising the places you find individual activists. In Makhachkala, there's a completely devoted environmentalist, a vegetarian Muslim. He makes a very big effort and achieves more than some groups with many members.

In the Ukraine, even little towns have environmental groups, and there's an organisation called Green World that unites a lot of them. I recall one Ukrainian town where factory emissions were causing all the hair of little children to fall out. A professor of medicine working on the problem started an environmental group, and that was the basis for the environment movement in the area. The professor was eventually elected to the Supreme Soviet as a deputy for the region.

Even if the average person isn't getting involved in a big way, there are still positive things happening. One of them is that greens are starting to get into parliament.

Are there all-Union bodies trying to link up these initiatives?

The main organisation in this field is the Social Ecological Union. That's based in Moscow, and it was started about three years ago by former members of the student movement, people who were in university in the early 1970s.

They have contacts all over the Soviet Union, but the infrastructure isn't well developed. They're looking for support from American non-profit organisations, to help them out with equipment and information. There are also green movement organisations that have contacts in many parts of the USSR.

What do you see as the prospects here for the rise of a powerful green movement, on the model, say, of Germany?

Especially in the Baltic republics, green parties have been able to get people elected to parliament. In the Ukraine as well the greens are quite influential — Green World has worked closely with the government there. At least in these republics, they are starting to move in the right direction.

Can you draw any conclusions about the impact which the

economic and social changes of the current period are having on the environment and the environmental movement? For example, the shift to market mechanisms in the economy — what effect is this likely to have?

Anyone who's seen the world knows what large companies can do in societies where the laws are weakly enforced and where private corporations have unregulated power.That's something to keep in mind when you consider the prospects for the Soviet Union.

Soviet enterprises in general are still closely linked to the government, especially the big factories and the big aluminium plants. But at the same time they're becoming more independent, more able to do things on their own. And because they're more independent, they're having to start paying out of their own pockets for such things as building waste water treatment plants. They're forced to become more responsible for their environmental emissions. The government is much more likely now to prosecute them for major spills.

There are positive and negative sides to the changes. There are some interesting programs where the government is letting factories keep 75% of a fine if they prove they'll use it specifically to rectify a problem.

The negative side is obvious. When industries start working just for profit, the dangers are extreme. I heard recently about a "waste mafia" in Leningrad. You pay certain people, and at 2 or 3 in the morning they come and get your waste and throw it in the Neva River. These are powerful groups. A contact we have in Leningrad was severely beaten because he meddled in these affairs. Free enterprise here promises to be very dangerous.