Vienna, January 9 –President Dmitry Medvedev has signed a law that eliminates most of the powers regions and republics in the Russian Federation had had to regulate environmental concerns and the extraction of natural resources on their territories, a change many believe will lead to the despoliation of much of that country’s most vulnerable lands.
Russian and foreign businesses have long complained about Russian legislation that gave regions a veto over their activities when such activities might have adverse affects on the local environment and have sought to centralize control over decisions governing the environment in Moscow.
The new measure is one that its supporters say “will solve a number of problems” in the 1995 law it modifies (www.duma.gov.ru/index.jsp?t=news/index.jsp&file=5919.html) but that its opponents insist will “jeopardize the protection” of particularly vulnerable environments (barentsobserver.com/regions-lose-power-over-regional-environment.4542037-16149.html).
Under the terms of the new law, regions and republics lose the power to regulate the extraction of metals and minerals from their territories or the handling of waste materials and to require what it calls any use of “excessive administrative barriers” to slow the development of such industries regardless of their probable impact.
At the same time, the law cuts out almost all federal agencies, except for Rosnedra (which regulates mining), from the approval process, thus eliminating the requirement for extensive environmental impact statements and likely speeding approval for the opening up of new lands for development of all kinds.
Because of that, many Russian environmentalists fear that the new law will do even more harm, undermining the country’s current system of nature protection by allowing for the leasing by private companies of land in nature reserves and parks and making it more difficult to create more entities to protect fragile ecosystems(www.barentsobserver.com/index.php?id=4533444).
At present, under the terms of the 1995 law, Russia has 101 forest reserves, 35 national parks, and 68 game reserves, covering a total area of some 560,000 square kilometer and until now off limits to the kind of industrial and commercial exploitation businesses have long sought and may now be able to pursue.
Activists in the Far North are especially concerned. According to Barentsobserver.com, the Kola Center for Nature Protection and the Gea Center of that region both say that the new law “will ruin” much of the land they are seeking to protect, with untold consequences for the health and well-being not only of those now alive but of future generations as well.
They are particularly concerned about the new law’s impact on the Khibiny Mountains whose natural wealth many corporations have wanted to exploit. If they do, the groups say, “Russia will lose an entire mountain range, the only one it has located north of the Arctic circle” and noted for its flora and fauna (www.pim.org.ru/old/news08.html#news04.12.08_01).
In difficult economic times, many people around the world are willing to sacrifice ecological concerns for development. Russia is clearly no exception, but the new measure has an additional consequence in the world’s largest country. It means that again, as in the Soviet past, officials in often distant Moscow will decide on these issues rather than those on the spot.
In the short term, such actions may in fact lead to more economic growth, but over the long haul, they will have two consequences neither of which the authors of such measures appear to recognize. On the one hand, such development will impose real costs in the longer term, costs that are no longer going to receive the same consideration in the approval process.
And on the other, in the Russian case, such development will heighten the anger many in the regions and republics feel toward Moscow, an anger that may start with ecological and environmental issues but that will not remain confined to them and thus may help power the very regionalism that Vladimir Putin’s recentralization of power was intended to preclude.