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

Burning a hole through the West's pocket?
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E N V I R O N M E N T:
Working with Russia
The ups and downs of international environmental collaboration
(Part 2)

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 (see last week's article for the full background).

The survey's 55 respondents included many leading non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Russia and the West, as well as representatives of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the World Bank and the European Commission. Individual respondents included Russia's environmental minister, Prof Viktor Danilov-Danilyan and Russia's best known environmentalist and former Environmental Counsellor to Boris Yeltsin, Prof Alexei Yablokov. All of these respondents gave full and frank responses to a series of questions on aspects of international environmental collaboration (see disclaimer). Although they all spoke with specific reference to Russia, the vast majority of what they said could be applied to any Central or Eastern European country, or indeed to any country anywhere.

In this week's article, we will look at what respondents thought were the gaps and duplications which occur in environmental projects and their recommendations for how these situations can be avoided.

What gaps and duplications exist in environmental collaboration?

Respondents identified a number of gaps which appear in environmental projects in Russia. Gaps came in two categories: issues which are not being tackled nationally and specific regions which are not receiving enough attention. In the former group was included:

  • "The nuclear issue is a complete gap and an intractable problem. Perhaps the only way to deal with it is in a focused effort to restructure the military, which is obviously deeply sensitive politically and probably not amenable to outside interference." (an anonymous representative of an international funding organisation)
  • Industrial pollution.
  • Information and experience.
  • Education and public awareness.
  • Coverage by the Russian media of environmental advances in the West.
  • Large print runs of locally produced environmental literature.
  • "Inadequate attention to illegal trade, corruption and enforcement of existing environmental laws. Without proper attention to these problems, it will be almost impossible for Russia and the international community to regulate natural resource use." (Josh Newell, Friends of the Earth, Japan)
  • Protection of grassland communities in the steppe and forest-steppe and the problem of soil degradation and erosion through gross over-use of pesticides and fertilisers.
  • Deforestation of the taiga, the world's largest forest.
  • Desertification, notably the Kalmyk Republic, which now contains Europe's first desert. This constitutes a gap because, according to Francoise Belmont of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) "assistance tends to focus on pollution problems and biodiversity conservation."
  • A database giving access to the accumulated experience of environmental activists – especially for the general public.
  • Indigenous peoples. According to Bill Pfeiffer of the Sacred Earth Network most Western and Russian governmental programmes "have ignored their plight in their struggle to maintain some semblance of sustainable living."

Gaps by territory can be more simply summarised than gaps by issue: not enough attention is given to remote areas, and particularly central Russia. Sanne Slegtenhorst, of Milieukontakt Oost Europa, thought that "The Urals and several regions of European Russia are being neglected while the nature conservationists focus on special areas like Baikal. And the organisations supporting NGOs are generally all in Moscow and not always accessible for NGOs in the regions." Whilst this view might generally be true, it is worth noting that the Open Society and the Pacific Environment and Resources Centre (PERC) both have offices east of the Urals.

There were several explanations for this state of affairs. A representative of an international funding institution who wished to remain anonymous noted that "Most aid or donor programmes are focused [on] Western Russia or the Far East. Very few large ones are in Central Russia or Central Siberia, reflecting roughly the demographic profile and to some extent the environmental problems."

Lisa Tracey of PERC blamed the gaps on a lack of infrastructure: "You find millions of dollars being thrown into one pocket and zero into other areas just as important – basically anywhere without a major airport [has a gap]." She also noted that "until you lure [Western] journalists into the region, things often don't happen. But they don't want to fly Aeroflot and they often don't speak Russian."

One exception, however, is the Kamchatka peninsula, with its geysers and active volcanoes, where Western agencies are said to trip over one other, astonished to find each other there. Francoise Belmont of UNEP believes that "there is a lot of duplication - everybody rushing in at the same time. Some topics are very fashionable."

Other areas experienced overlap, if not complete duplication, owing to the number of different foreign agencies in the field. This has been noted in North West Russia, the heavily polluted town of Nizhny Tagil in the Urals, and, perhaps above all, in the Baikal region and the tiger habitat of the Russian Far East.

The Baikal region and the Siberian tiger have almost certainly attracted more foreign interest than any other environmental cause in Russia. "Baikal is a victim of its own success. Many people have ended up doing the same job three or four times for different organisations," according to an anonymous international funding institute representative. In the Primorsky krai in the Russian Far East, five foreign donors found that they were funding the same tiger patrol team.

According to Emma Wilson (Friends of the Earth, Japan), there is a lot of infighting, wasted effort and wasted money: "A lot of the time nobody knows who’s funding whom and Russians can take advantage of this. So Westerners have to be very conscious of this." She complains that many international organisations try to get in on the act of something charismatic rather than really assessing proper needs.

Why does this duplication occur? Reasons cited included Westerners not wanting to take the risk of going somewhere when they don’t know the area, Russian institutes keeping foreign agencies/NGOs ignorant of each other’s involvement, in order to intentionally attract "double funding", and Western organisations acting like they are in competition with each other and, therefore, not communicating.

Gaps and duplications constitute just one area of inefficiency in Western collaboration in the Russian environment. In next week's article, we will look at other reasons for failure and, perhaps more importantly, what is a recipe for success for an international environmental project.

John Massey Stewart, 20 September 1999

A few copies of the original survey, 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 involvement in attempts to solve Russia's environmental problems it seemed extraordinary that no survey seemed to exist on its effectiveness – or lack thereof. 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), published 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 by John Massey Stewart (a Russian specialist, 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 what is thought to have been the first ever conference between European and Russian environmental NGOs (Suzdal,1994), has arranged lectures and workshops, facilitated visits and built an international network of contacts among environmentalists working in the region.

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


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




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