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Russia's Environmental Crisis | The Nation

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Russia's Environmental Crisis

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The Russian nuclear submarine tragedy has shocked the world, but it has only reinforced what the country's most prominent environmentalist, Alexandr Nikitin, has been saying for years. A former submarine captain himself, Nikitin made international headlines in 1996 by blowing the whistle on the Russian Navy's ecologically disastrous mishandling of submarines. Now the government wants to re-prosecute Nikitin for his whistleblowing, on the bizarre grounds that it violated his civil rights the first time it tried to convict him. But the government's strategy may backfire: Its persecution of Nikitin and its dismantling of environmental laws appear to be sparking a resurgence of green activism in Russia.

NPR's Living On Earth program broadcast a radio version of this story over the weekend of
September 1-3, 2000. Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of
the Nation Institute.

About the Author

Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, is an independent journalist and the author of six books...

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When the Kursk sank on August 12, killing all 118 crew members, Russians were saddened and outraged--not just by the deaths and the government's ham-handed response but by the tragedy's deeper symbolism: Russia seemed to be falling apart. "There's no money to take care of anything...[so] the accidents just keep on happening," Sergei Titkov, a Moscow security guard, said after the Ostankino television tower caught fire August 27 in a further illustration of the nation's technological frailty. Just as an apparent lack of training and maintenance doomed the Kursk, so does inadequate repair and upkeep plague Russia's entire industrial infrastructure. Thus the Kursk tragedy may turn out to be but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The cash-strapped military has abandoned some 110 additional mothballed nuclear submarines on land and sea without proper environmental or security safeguards, according to Nikitin. Likewise, countless factories, pipelines and other increasingly decrepit civilian facilities pose a growing risk to human life and natural ecosystems, both in Russia and beyond.

When Nikitin co-wrote a 1996 report revealing that the Northern Fleet had been dumping old reactors and spent fuel into the Barents Sea and on the Kola Peninsula for decades, he called the contamination "a Chernobyl in slow motion." The Federal Security Police (FSB), Russia's recast KGB, promptly threw him in jail. In the first of many irregularities, he was charged with espionage on the basis of a law written months after he was imprisoned. Nikitin spent the next four years fighting for his freedom. Finally, last December, the City Court of St. Petersburg acquitted him of all charges and made a point of criticizing the FSB for improprieties in the case. In April the Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling.

Nikitin soon left for California to accept the Goldman Environmental Prize, which he'd won in 1997 but hadn't been allowed to leave Russia to accept. As he strode across the stage in Berkeley, Nikitin still looked the career military man, with close-cropped graying hair and a clipped, serious manner. But he did know how to tell a joke. After a heavily accented "Thank you very much," Nikitin said, in Russian, "I would like to apologize that I was late for this ceremony exactly three years." But no one was laughing a few days later when Russia's Prosecutor General announced that the government of President Vladimir Putin wanted to retry Nikitin. Officials at the prosecutor's office were unavailable for comment. But it's clear that Russian media coverage has made Alexandr Nikitin a hero to many politically aware Russians--a successful symbol of dissent. His colleagues believe that the campaign against him is aimed at discouraging others from following his example.

"What we have shown through the Nikitin case is that, if you fight, you're able to get results, even if your enemy is the KGB," says Frederic Hauge, president of the Bellona Foundation, the environmental group, based in Russia and Norway, that published Nikitin's original exposé. Hauge says Nikitin's court victories have been particularly inspiring to young Russians, who are now flocking to join environmental groups. "This gives young people a hope and also a weapon--the legal system--which they have not been aware of before. After seventy years with Communism, where you have been shot if you have disagreed with the government, this has ended up to be a very, very important symbolic case."

Also helping to swell the movement's ranks is the government's blatant assault on environmental regulations. Acting by decree, Putin abolished the State Committee for Environmental Protection in May and transferred its responsibilities to the Ministry of Natural Resources, the pro-development agency that licenses development of Russia's minerals and petroleum. Environmentalists accused Putin of "putting the goat in charge of the cabbage patch." Svet Zabelin of the Socio-Ecological Union, one of Russia's leading environmentalists, charges that this marks a return to the Soviet era, when ministries rubber-stamped their own environmental behavior: "During the Soviet period, each ministry had an environmental department, but it was not outside control.... Now we are simply [returning to] the same situation--an absolutely Soviet solution."

But there are signs the government's actions are provoking a popular backlash. The Russian news agency Interfax reports that 87 percent of Russians oppose Putin's abolition of the environmental agency. And a coalition of fifty environmental groups is organizing a national referendum that would overturn Putin's decree. Activists claim they have collected 400,000 signatures--a fifth of what's needed by the end of October to put the referendum on the ballot next year. "[Organizing] the referendum has truly, finally, united the environmental NGO movement in Russia," says David Gordon of the Oakland-based Pacific Environment and Resources Center. Traveling throughout Russia in August, Gordon reported that "NGOs have been actively discussing it at every meeting I have attended. It's their primary goal right now."

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