Thursday, July 31, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Putin Decision in 2006 Said Pushing Moscow toward ‘Ecological Catastrophe’

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 31 – Then Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to kill environmental assessments of new industrial plants, a step urged by businessmen and celebrated by the most enthusiastic advocates of the free market, is now pushing Moscow toward “an ecological catastrophe” in which many will suffer, according to city officials and ecologists.
At a press conference in the Russian capital today, Leonid Bochin, the city’s senior official responsible for monitoring the environment, said that in the absence of such assessments, plans were going ahead to open several metallurgical factories nearby whose emissions will prove harmful (
He added that Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov is so concerned that he plans to appeal directly to now Prime Minister Putin in the hopes of blocking the construction of these plants or at least relocating them where the winds will not carry the most harmful emissions directly over heavily populated areas.
Among the metallurgical plants near the capital that Bochin and Luzhkov want to block are a heavy metal plant in Kaluga oblast, 101 km from Moscow, a second in the Kashirov district of Moscow oblast, and smaller but dangerous because of their emissions plants in Ivanovo, Tver, and Voronezh oblasts.
Moscow officials are deeply disturbed that their city and the surrounding oblast now find themselves in “a ring of factories which will spew out particles of heavy metals” and thus harm the population, something that he suggested the environmental service Putin disbanded in 2006 had prevented in the past.
Still worse, Bochin said, “the government now lacks any policy concerning the optimal location of industrial objects. The Council for the Study of Productive Forces in the Economic Development Ministry has been transformed into a structure which does not influence any decisions whatsoever.”
Representatives of NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund’s Igor Chestin were even more blunt: He called the disbanding of the state’s ecological serviced “an enormous mistake,” one that means it would in principle be possible to build a nuclear power station in the center of the capital without consulting the citizenry or experts.
And he noted yet another reason for his anger about this decision: Until the ecological service was disbanded, it was “the only rule-making mechanism in which ordinary citizens could take direct part.” Now, companies can do pretty much what they like as long as they secure the approval of local bosses.
Three things about this report are important. First, environmental degradation and is baleful effects on public health are something that the Russian public understands, having suffered and indeed continuing to suffer from the environmental nihilism of the Soviet system for much of their lives. Consequently, public protests are likely.
Second, the willingness of some officials to directly link past decisions by Putin to current problems suggests that a significant number of bureaucrats and politicians are revising their opinion of the former president, recognizing that many of his “achievements” in fact were the product of decisions that are now have a negative impact.
And third, while ecology is normally a government rather than a Kremlin concern, it is entirely possible that President Dmitry Medvedev may ultimately decide to intervene on behalf of the Muscovites, a politically popular choice consistent with the image he has tried to project but one that could put him on a collision course with Putin and with the business community.
If Medvedev does not, many in Russia are likely to see this as yet another indication that he is far from being his own man, a conclusion on their part that will affect his ability to project himself as a new leader concerned not only about the rule of law but also about the protection of the citizens of his country.

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