Sunday, March 29, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Putin’s Destruction of Environmental Protection Rules Costing Russian Lives

Paul Goble

Tallinn, March 29 – More than ten times as many Russians die prematurely each year as a result of contaminants in the environment than do from alcoholism, a result at least due at least in part to Vladimir Putin’s dismantling of the environmental protection measures his predecessor Boris Yeltsin had introduced, according to a leading Russian ecologist.
In a recent interview, Aleksey Yablokov, a candidate member of the Academy of Sciences and the leader of the Green Russia fraction within the opposition Yabloko Party, said that recent victories on the ecological front in Russia including a ban on certain kinds of hunting gave him hope that the country might recover from the losses of the Putin years.
In Soviet times, Yablokov recalled, the authorities failed to show any concern for the environment and generally classified any information about environmental contamination. That became impossible after the Chernobyl accident, and by the end of the 1980s, “the ecological movement was the only permissible form of public movement.”
Indeed, the ecological movement provided the foundation for the growth of historical preservation and then national movements, and consequently, the Moscow ecologist said, it is perhaps not surprising that many Russian officials share the view of Vladimir Putin that “ecology is a cover for spies” (
In part because of the convergence of these various movements, he continued, the first post-Soviet Russian government, to which he served as an advisor, took a number of steps to protect the environment. But “after 1995, an active de-ecologization of state policy began,” as more and more people argued that ecological protection was something Russia could not afford.
But the dismantling of Russia’s ecological monitoring and regulation system radically expanded when Putin came to power. “One of his first directives,” Yablokov notes, was the liquidation of the State Committee on Ecology. Shortly thereafter, he closed down the Russian Forestry Commission and the ecology militia and ended ecology courses in the schools.
Ecologists were outraged, and 90 Duma deputies signed a petition calling on the Kremlin to reverse course, but that had no effect against the arguments of those around Putin that Russia would have time enough to “occupy itself with ecology after [the country] became rich.” And by 2007, all environmental protection laws had been repealed or fatally compromised.
But Yablokov says that those who believe the country has that much time as only deceiving themselves. According to a World Health Organization study released two years ago, he notes, some 490,000 Russians were dying prematurely because of environmental factors, more than 12 times the 40,000 a year dying early from alcoholism.
And because Russia is a “shameful” exception to the rule that life expectancy increases with income – since 1995, per capita incomes have gone up on average ten times, but life expectancy has declined to only 59 years for males – Russia cannot afford such massive numbers of premature deaths if it is going to ameliorate its demographic problems.
Unfortunately, it is still the case that the interests of big business and its allies inside the government are still quite prepared to sacrifice the environment, including such unique places as Lake Baikal, in the name of boosting profits. But Yablokov said the recent outburst of public anger about officials hunting from helicopters and against seal harvesting may point to a change.
Another positive indication is that the current Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has said several times that the country can only survive if it protects the environment, a far different position than the one Putin adopted although a position that Medvedev has not yet taken very many steps to realize.
Many of the steps Yablokov says are necessary are certain to meet resistance. He would like to see an end to the use of pesticides and genetically modified foods, and he is completely opposed to the construction of nuclear power plants, facilities he calls “atomic bombs which produce electricity.”
Despite claims to the contrary, he continues, “atomic energy [in Russia and elsewhere] has not resolved three main problems: the3 security of atomic reactors, the security of the storage of radioactive wastes, and [the way in which these facilities lead] to the production of nuclear weapons.”
“If a country has a nuclear power station, it has passed three quarters of the way to the building of an atomic bomb. Now, an atomic energy station is being completed in Busher, and six months from now, Iran will have an atomic bomb.” Indeed, he continues, many other countries with such stations could “go nuclear” in the weapons field in “weeks or months.”
And consequently, in that way too, Yablokov insists, those who believe that Russia or other countries can ignore ecological problems until their populations are rich are only deceiving themselves to the point of disaster – and a disaster far greater than any they are currently willing to acknowledge.

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