Vienna, April 16 – Although overshadowed by this weekend’s much larger protest march in the Russian capital, approximately a thousand people assembled in Irkutsk on Saturday to demonstrate against what Siberians have long denounced as Moscow’s “ecological colonialism” of their region.
The event, timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the USSR Council of Minister’s decree ending the dumping of cellulose wastes in Lake Baikal, attracted people from a broad range of parties and groups – all except the pro-Kremlin United Russia and Just Russia parties (http://babr.ru/news/print.php?IDE=37172).
Most of those taking part had explicitly ecological concerns – preventing the construction of an International Nuclear Center and nuclear waste dump in the Transbaikal and further contamination of Lake Baikal, the largest (by volume) freshwater lake in the world – and signed an appeal calling for an end to pollution there.
But because representatives of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the National Bolshevik Party were present as well, special OMON police units apparently fearful of a distant echo of the Moscow demonstration, kept close watch on the meeting and briefly detained seven participants.
By itself, a meeting of this size in a place this distant from Moscow may seem relatively unimportant, but there are three reasons for thinking that this protest could prove more important for the future development of the Russian Federation than many of the demonstrations to which the media have devoted greater attention.
First, there is a precedent from Soviet times: environmental activism, which Moscow seldom opposed, sometimes led to historical preservationism which the Soviet government was less supportive of, and ultimately to the emergence of national movements in a variety of republics which challenged Moscow’s rule.
Second, environmentalism is not only a “motherhood” issue criticism of which is generally beyond the pale, but it can easily become an umbrella cause under which a variety of groups and organizations that might otherwise have little or nothing to do with one another.
And third, any reference to colonialism in the Siberian context be it ecological or economic inevitably recalls the works of the Siberian regionalists at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, a group of people who sought broad autonomy or even independence for that enormous land.
UPDATE ON APRIL 17: "Vostochnaya-Sibirskaya pravda" today carries an extensive article on the demonstration, noting that it was smaller than might have been expected because of bad weather but underlining both the breadth of ecological concerns in Siberia and the role environmental activism played in the development of social movements at the end of the Soviet period (http://www.vsp.ru/show_article.php?id=39793).