Russia’s Environmental Crisis

Russia’s Environmental Crisis

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.


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.

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.”

Activists want to restore the environmental committee even though they have criticized it as weak and too cozy with industry. “The committee was badly run,” says Nikitin, “but it was doing an important job.” Vera Mishenko, who founded Russia’s first public-interest environmental law firm, Ecojuris, is suing to have Putin’s decree declared illegal. She says documents generated by the environmental committee were helpful when Ecojuris stopped Exxon-Mobil and other transnational corporations from dumping toxic waste into the sea near Sakhalin Island. “Russian law requires that an environmental impact assessment be done before a permit is granted,” Mishenko explains, “and when the State Committee told Exxon this, Exxon wrote back to complain, ‘You promised us no inspections!'” Smiling, Mishenko adds, “We published this correspondence.”

Mishenko believes the Putin government’s anti-environmental initiatives reflect a simple goal: sell off Russia’s remaining natural resources at maximum speed to attract the foreign investment Putin sees as vital to rejuvenating the moribund economy. (Of course, former President Boris Yeltsin tried this strategy and only ended up enriching the nation’s infamous oligarchs.) Besides abolishing the environmental committee, Putin is overseeing a crackdown on green activists. Ecojuris and other groups have been accused of dodging taxes; when inspectors audit the groups, they gain access to membership lists and other confidential information. Putin, who headed the FSB in 1998 and 1999, has asserted that environmental groups provide cover for foreign spies.

Meanwhile, Russia’s breathtaking environmental deterioration continues. One million tons of oil–the equivalent of twenty-five Exxon Valdez spills–leak out of pipelines into Russia’s soil and water every month. Recent studies blame the disastrous state of the nation’s air, soil and water for 30 percent of the precipitate decline in average Russian life spans. The impoverished economy makes matters worse, leaving little money for cleanup or repair. The nuclear submarine disaster illustrates the danger of operating military hardware without sufficient funding, but countless Russian industrial facilities are running the same risk. Says activist Zabelin, “The chances for a different accident are of course increasing, because we have the same equipment as twenty years ago. This is a kind of dangerous stability.”

Nowhere are conditions more dire than near nuclear complexes. The most famous is Chernobyl, where the 1986 accident released 100 times as much radiation as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs combined. Today, 3 million youngsters still need treatment for Chernobyl-related ailments. At the Mayak complex in Chelyabinsk, where the Soviet Union built nuclear weapons during the cold war, Lake Karachay ranks as perhaps the most polluted spot on earth; it contains 120 million curies of radioactive waste, including seven times the amount of strontium-90 and cesium-137 that was released at Chernobyl. By 2020-30, half the children born in Chelyabinsk are expected to suffer “severe genetic deficiencies,” British parliamentary aide David Lowry recently wrote in the Guardian.

Yet Mayak will receive tons of additional nuclear waste if Putin’s minister of atomic energy, Yevgeny Adamov, gets his way. Adamov wants to change Russian law to allow the import of nuclear waste. Such imports, claims Adamov, could pay for scores of new nuclear power plants for Russia and help clean up sites like Lake Karachay. Nikitin opposes the plan, saying, “This is the source where Adamov will get funds to develop the nuclear industry, but it’s like a snowball, always getting bigger. The more reactors he builds, the more waste there will be, and the more problems he will encounter.”

Nikitin points out that Washington wields considerable influence on this matter. Under the old Atoms for Peace program, the United States regulates the nuclear waste that Russia wants to import from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. “I think our job is to influence not only the Russian side but also the American side,” Nikitin told me, “because without the consent of the Americans and the Europeans it’s impossible to import nuclear fuel or radioactive waste.”

The proposed environmental referendum would reassert Russia’s existing ban on nuclear waste imports as well as reverse Putin’s decree, but will it pass? Activists Mishenko and Zabelin fear not; they worry that the government will seize upon the involvement of Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund in drafting the referendum to discredit it as a foreign plot. But Frederic Hauge of Bellona believes such pessimism underestimates the environmental fervor of the Russian people. “I have seen the local fights around Russia,” he says. “When they tried to move nuclear waste from the Kola Peninsula down to Chelyabinsk, there were 10,000 people in the streets…. I think we will see the referendum during the next year.”

For his part, Alexandr Nikitin must first survive his Supreme Court appearance on September 13. The stakes are high. If the court does grant the government’s request for a retrial, it would distract Nikitin from the referendum fight and probably discourage ordinary Russians from enlisting in the environmental cause. A ruling in favor of Nikitin, on the other hand, would reinforce the message of earlier verdicts: In today’s Russia, maybe you can fight the system and win.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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