Friday, March 12, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Faces New Challenges from Russian Environmentalists

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 12 – Yesterday, Russia’s Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak appealed to ecologists “not to block” the construction of facilities for the Sochi Olympic Games now planned for 2014, the latest indication of the way in which Moscow has found itself under pressure from environmental activists.
Kozak told a session of the inter-agency commission preparing for the games that UN experts had not found “major ecological problems” in their study of the environment around Sochi and that Russian ecologists should accept their conclusions rather than take steps to prevent construction from going forward (
As “Kommersant” reported today, environmentalists were not impressed by Kozak’s remarks. Igor Chestin, director of the World Wildlife Fund of Russia, said that he “does not understand how Russian ecologists can ‘block’ the Olympic project; we simply don’t have such power.”
But the situation in Sochi is a matter of deep concern, he continued, because “the ecology of the region has already suffered and now one can talk only about minimizing harm,” given that the government’s current approach, if it continues unchanged “will lead to a catastrophe with human victims.”
And as for the report by UN ecologists, Chestin said, neither he nor other Russian environmentalists have had the chance to read it, although many of them did meet with the UN specialists when they visited Sochi earlier this year. But as far as their report is concerned, it will become publically available only “next week.”
(Moscow faces other challenges in Sochi. Today, some workers on Olympic objects declared a strike because the Russian companies have not paid them for three months (, and Circassian activists continue their campaign to shift the games.)
But this week, Moscow faces several other environmental challenges, two of which are likely to have a serious impact in the Russian capital. On the one hand, almost all environmental movements in Russia have united to block the reopening of the paper plant on Lake Baikal (
This movement, which 40 years ago served as a major trigger for the rise of Russian nationalism and Siberian regionalism and which forced the Soviet regime to agree to schedule the plant’s closure, appears to be gathering momentum, with some of its members even calling for environmentalists to press harder (
Given that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has tried to have it both ways on this question, earlier posing as a defender of the purity of the waters of Lake Baikal and more recently issuing a decree allowing the paper plant to reopen, such pressure could resonate in Moscow politics (
Meanwhile, in the Russian North, Moscow faces another problem. Not only are conditions in some villages deteriorating rapidly, a trend that is attracting the attention of Russian and foreign media (, but Scandinavian governments are becoming angry.
Not only does pollution from Russian sites threaten their countries, but governments in this region are furious: they gave Moscow money to clean up some the worst locations and little or nothing has been done (
Because environmental causes, unlike ethnic ones, translate well from one group to another and from one country to another, environmental activists in Russia are likely to gain support not only from large parts of the population of their country but from ecological movements and some governments abroad.
That in turn means that Russia’s environmental movement is likely to grow, adding its voice to and being joined by other opposition groups, in ways that the current Russian powers that be may find it increasingly difficult to dismiss with suggestions that those concerned about protecting the environment should defer to Moscow’s public relations campaigns.

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