Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 12
13 September 1999

Burning a hole through the West's pocket?
We kindly ask you to refrain from smoking
E N V I R O N M E N T:
Working with Russia
The ups and downs of international environmental collaboration (Part I)

John Massey Stewart

Although much time, money and effort have gone into solving Russia's vast environmental problems, not all of it has been effective. Last year, an independent survey questioned a broad range of those working to save the Russian environment on what has been going wrong, what has been going right and why.

Western environmental collaboration with Russia comes at governmental, inter-governmental, academic and non-governmental organisation (NGO) level and the survey aimed to cover as wide a selection as possible on both sides, working at all levels. The 55 respondents included many leading NGOs in Russia and the West, as well as representatives of the EBRD, the OECD, the World Bank and the European Commission and individuals such as Russia's environmental minister, Prof Viktor Danilov-Danilyan and Russia's best known environmentalist and former Environmental Counsellor to Boris Yeltsin, Prof Alexei Yablokov. The survey's aim was to publish and publicise the frank opinions and recommendations of these key and representative persons. Indeed, many of those interviewed spoke off the record, and even those who spoke on the record often stressed that they were expressing their own personal opinions and not necessarily those of the organisations for which they work or worked (see disclaimer).

Although the survey was made over a year ago and many things have changed in Russia (the collapse of the rouble and the consequent economic strife), the survey's findings are still pertinent. What is more, their relevance extends beyond the borders of Russia, to the whole of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Central Europe and far further.

In the first of a series of features re-examining the survey's findings, we will look at the first three questions which were asked to those who participated: what Russia's environmental priorities are, how Russians and the West do not always see eye to eye on how they should be ranked and how Russian State policy differs from the country's needs.

1. What are Russia's environmental priorities?

Russian and Western respondents cited a wide range of environmental problems which fall into four broad categories:

Pollution of air, water and land

Respondents listed a number of different sources for such forms of pollution including: industry, agriculture, radioactive waste and nuclear contamination, mining, domestic waste, chemical weapons and traffic.

Unsustainable exploitation of natural resources

Natural resources identified in this category included logging, mining (coal, gold, nickel and other metals), oil and gas extraction, water for irrigation, fish stocks and fields, which are being over-grazed.

Energy inefficiency

This was a point of particular concern, because it has implications for global warming. The principal culprits in this category were listed as old, badly designed and badly maintained equipment.

Loss of biodiversity

Particular concern was expressed for ecosystems which are outside protected areas. The threats were identified as coming from pollution, habitat destruction (eg from building roads) and hunting and poaching.

Potential problems were also identified, including radioactive leakage from military sources of nuclear material and the potential for worsening air and water pollution triggered by future improvement in the economy and industrial growth. Much of the current situation is blamed on a lack of funding for the environment, the absence of a co-ordinated state environment policy, unsatisfactory and unenforced legislation and the general lack of priority assigned to the environment.

There was not, however, total agreement between Western respondents and Russian respondents on what Russia's worst problems were. Environmental priorities listed by Russian respondents included:

  • developing adequate institutional structures and legislation
  • establishing the safety of the country's nuclear power stations
  • identifying pollution hot-spots and investment in their elimination
  • promoting environmentally responsible mining practices
  • improving water treatment processes
  • giving priority to energy-efficient plants
  • adopting a holistic, whole-basin approach to river management
  • promoting environmental education and courses on environmental awareness
  • promoting sustainable development and natural resource use
  • maintaining biodiversity – including updating information on Red Data species.

Russian respondents generally emphasised environmental problems that directly affect human health, whilst the Western view tends to focus on long-term and local problems such as loss of biodiversity and global warming. With millions of Russians lacking access to environmental health through sub-standard drinking water, polluted city air, radiation and other problems, the founder of Moscow's Health and Environment Foundation and President of the Russian Public Health Association, Dr. Andrei Demine, says "The most pressing ecological problems are those causing the most casualties in the population’s health."

However, these two view did coincide on a couple of points: the seriousness of the nuclear issue with its dangers, both internal and external; and the pervading "frontier attitude" towards natural resources, especially where international finance is concerned. In the case of the latter, "New Russians" and foreign interests - including multinationals - are solely interested in gaining access to cheap natural resources, regardless of cost. One Western respondent noted that American and Canadian companies are both operating in Russia without following international standards.

2. Does the West agree with Russia’s environmental priorities and match them?

A number of respondents felt that the West is matching what are perceived to be Russia's environmental priorities - such as environmental education. This is very much a priority according to Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, Chairman of Russia's State Committee for Environmental Protection. Laurence Mee, formerly Co-ordinator of the Global Environment Facility's Black Sea Environmental Project, was also positive, but asked, "Is this right? They match the priorities which stem from the way of thinking which has been in vogue [in Russia and the Soviet Union] for the last fifty years or so, which is the technological, "quick-fix" way of thinking." Western aid, he believes, tends to reinforce the idea that everything can be fixed with technology, thus undermining efforts to change public attitudes.

Other respondents did not feel the West is matching Russia's priorities at all: Mara Silina (Friends of the Earth - Europe) felt that the West has its own priorities and agendas which it imposes on recipient countries. "Projects are often based on what the West thinks is important for Russia, not what Russian groups see as priority for them." Two other experienced Westerners maintained that the West is more focussed on ecological issues than those relating to the population’s health.

One very experienced (but anonymous) representative of a major IFI (international funding institute) believed that at a national and federation level there is probably a very deep discordance between the West and Russia and there is no dialogue at all with the main political departments – the Ministries of Finance and Economy – and environmental issues are "completely out of sight on the agenda."

Igor Chestin, head of the WWF Russian Programme Office, accuses the West of failing to raise "deeper structural questions like the economy and the status of the environment [on the State’s agenda]." Bill Pfeiffer, who runs the Sacred Earth Network, one of the most active American NGOs in the NIS, believes that in order to plan for a healthy future, the Russian government wants and needs help re-building its infrastructure. However, "the West wants to have a more immediate impact, preferring to fund projects with concrete, short-term, measurable outcomes." These feelings were shared by Prof Alexei Yablokov, Chair of the Board for the Centre for Russian Environmental Policy (CREP) and formerly President Yeltsin’s Environmental Counsellor, who said that "The scale of these problems is so great that Western aid can only be a catalyst, there’s no way it could solve the whole problem. But it doesn't even serve as a catalyst, it just tackles small, specific areas, and no one sits down to think out an overall strategy."

3. Does Russian state policy meet the problems?

Despite existing federal and municipal programmes, Western and Russian respondents generally felt that State policy failed to adequately address Russia's environmental problems. The reasons given included shortage of funding, "lack of infrastructure and commitment" (Igor Chestin, World Wildlife Fund, Russian Programme Office), "poor intra- and inter-departmental communication" (Jane Robertson Vernhes, UNESCO), "a lot of overlapping within the state structures, with no clear delineation of responsibilities" (Eija Kiiskinen, OECD) and "a great lack of a coherent, long-term, officially adopted policy" (Alexei Yablokov, CREP).

Added to these problems is the low importance assigned to environmental issues and one IFI representative stated that "the environment is considered probably as a constraint to development rather than as an instrument to improve economic efficiency" whilst the most pessimistic thought that "the environment won’t be a priority until the situation becomes catastrophic."

Open wide
Just checking to see if all the warheads are still there

One gets the impression that it [the State Committee on the Environment] is just treading water. It adopts a whole load of good programmes on lead, on dioxins - but doesn't carry them through. Not even a quarter of them come to fruition, less than a tenth do," complained Alexei Yablokov who was also concerned about the implications of last year's - unconstitutional - presidential decree which allows the inclusion of environmental issues in the list of State secrets. David Gore (Pacific Environment Resources Council) said that "The ball is now in the court of the Russian government in promoting environmental initiative."

Such issues start to show impediments being placed between Russia and the West in their agreement even in abstract issues on saving the environment, never mind the practical realities of implementing the agreed goals. In next week's article we will look more at the practicalities of environmental collaboration, reviewing respondents' views on gaps and duplications in environmental projects and what makes a project a success and what makes one a failure.

John Massey Stewart, 13 September 1999

A few copies of the original report, International Environmental Collaboration, Russia: A case study are still available from the author, priced GBP 15 for institutes and GBP 10 for NGOs and individuals. Prices include postage and packing.

More About the Survey

Considering the vast amount of money and effort involved in the West's collaboration in Russia’s environmental it seemed extraordinary that no survey seemed to exist on its effectiveness – or otherwise. The London Initiative on the Russian Environment resolved to fill the gap. The result was a ground-breaking 38 page booklet International Environmental Collaboration. Russia: A Case Study, (chief editor John Massey Stewart), timed for distribution at the major "Environment for Europe" ministerial and NGO conference at Aarhus, Denmark, in June 1998.

This was almost certainly the first comprehensive study of international collaboration on Russia’s environment and was aimed at both politicians and practitioners as well as presenting itself as a replicable model for the NIS as well as CEE. Compiled in association with Eco-Accord, a Moscow NGO, and the Central European University, Budapest, it was funded by the UNEP Regional Office for Europe, Reuters Foundation and an anonymous donor.

Founded in 1993 jointly by John Massey Stewart, a Russian specialist as environmental activist, writer, consultant, and lecturer, and the Conservation Foundation, a UK registered charity, the London Initiative on the Russian environment's aim is to help encourage, facilitate and co-ordinate the Western response to the Russian environment, working with government officials, international organisations and NGOs. It organised probably the first ever conference between European and Russian environmental NGOs (Suzdal,1994), and has arranged lectures and workshops, facilitated visits and built an international network of contacts.

Seven hundred original copies – and 100 photocopies of a Russian translation were distributed at Aarhus, EKOS, a leading Russian environmental magazine, has since devoted virtually a whole issue to a reprint in Russian.


The donors, facilitatiing organisations (Conservation Foundation and its London Initiative on the Russian Environment, Eco-Accord and the the Central European University), or the organistions cited in this text do not necessarily agree with the opinions expressed herein, which remain purely the personal opinions of those people quoted.




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