Murmansk authorities spurn environmentalists – and the environment

Publish date: February 15, 2010

Written by: Alexey Pavlov

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

ST. PETERSBURG – In late January, Dmitry Dmitriyenko, governor of Russia’s Far Northern region of Murmansk, on the Kola Peninsula, met with representatives of the region’s public organisations, ethnic and cultural groups, and members of the Public Chamber. Altogether, Dmitriyenko heard some 20 people – but not an environmentalist among them. Below is an opinion piece by Alexei Pavlov, Director of Bellona’s St. Petersburg offices.

For those who have observed the situation, however, the meeting hardly came as a surprise. As soon as Dmitriyenko took the reins in March 2009, replacing Yury Yevdokimov at the post of Governor of Murmansk Region, environmentalists found themselves struggling to get the new governor’s attention. Dmitriyenko’s predecessor used to meet with environmentalists regularly and would listen to their opinions even if they were contrary to his own. Dmitriyenko, by contrast, never responded to the meeting request extended last year by Severnaya Koalitsiya (Northern Coalition), a group uniting five environmental non-for-profit organisations: Bellona-Murmansk, a WWF branch operating in the Barents region, Murmansk’s Priroda i Molodyozh (Nature and Youth), the Kola Centre for the Protection of Wildlife, and the Kola Ecological Centre Gaea. Last May, a couple of months after the governor took office, the coalition asked for a meeting to discuss the Kola Peninsula’s most pressing environmental problems, but never received an answer.  

“Our experience with working with the previous regional government tells use that it is only with mutual understanding and cooperation between the authorities and public non-governmental organisations that environmental issues can be efficiently solved for the benefit of all residents of the Kola polar region,” said the coalition’s secretary and an employee with the Kola Centre for the Protection of Wildlife, Olga Petrova.

“Each of the five organisations that make up the Northern Coalition has proposals to offer for the solution of this or that problem.”
The current governor’s disregard for the coalition’s request for a meeting may be rooted in his overall attitude to the region’s environmental woes. During an end-of-the-year press conference late last December, when he was asked which ecological problems concerned him most, Dmitriyenko named only garbage – as if the region had no other ecological problems to worry about. The wide range of environmental headaches the Kola Peninsula has to grapple with includes the maintenance and decommissioning of nuclear-powered icebreakers and submarines, safety of the Kola Nuclear Power Plant, the former naval bases of Andreyeva Bay and Gremikha, and their decades’ worth of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste, air and water pollution as a result of large industrial operations, to name just a few.   

Likewise, the new governor finds no threat in global climate change. He has indicated that he believes the rapid thawing of ice in the Arctic to be highly beneficial for the region, since it will generate more vigorous international trade activities along the Northern Transport Route, which provides a connection between Murmansk and the Pacific Ocean.

One other disconcerting sign of Dmitriyenko’s gubernatorial priorities is his decision to demote the regional Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology to committee level. Environmentalists point out the agency’s status as a ministry gave it a stronger authority within the structures of the regional executive branch and enabled it to perform more efficiently the ecological duties it is charged with. All told, it is hardly any wonder that no invitation was sent out to environmentalists for the January meeting. Indeed, why meet with ecologists if all the region’s environmental problems amount to is garbage?

The Kola Ecological Centre Gaea’s chairman, Yury Ivanov, believes an elected governor would have been far more attentive to his constituency. In a highly criticised 2004 reform, which followed closely the horrendous Beslan school hostage crisis, the then Russian President Vladimir Putin abolished gubernatorial elections in Russia, giving himself the authority to nominate cherry-picked regional governors for local legislatures’ approval. Many have since seen the reform as an authoritarian move to further consolidate power in the Kremlin and as a successful attack on the country’s struggling democracy.

“I am not at all surprised by such an attitude toward ecology on the part of the [governor],” Ivanov said. “I am confident this is a result of gubernatorial appointments. When governors were elected by the people, they had to live here for a long time, they had to pay attention to all of the region’s problems, whether they wanted to or not. And they had to try to solve them.”  
Granted, Governor Dmitriyenko shows a generous stance toward other public organisations in the region and the civil society in general. Talking to the press after the January meeting, Dmitriyenko underscored the role of non-for-profit organisations in the life of Murmansk Region.

“If people get united because of certain common interests or some other distinction, that means they need it, and since we are considered a socially-oriented state, we must take into consideration the interests of all population groups, irrespective of whether they are large or not, and we have no right to ignore any of them. This is the foundation of social stability both in the [region] and in the state,” the governor said.

It seems, however, that the future of civil society in Murmansk Region does not include environmental organisations. Meanwhile, it is mostly or largely with the participation of concerned citizens – read, environmental public organisations – that solutions are found to such problems as preserving biological diversity, expanding the network of protected wildlife reserves, promoting renewable energy sources and energy efficiency, environmental education, issues associated with genetically modified organisms, or developing ecological tourism.

“It is natural for the Russian political elite that the authorities would pay no attention to ecological non-governmental organisations,” explains Bellona-Murmansk’s chairman Andrei Zolotkov.

His take on the situation is not without a tinge of derision:

“Environmentalists, as a rule, are very contentious and obstinate people. Why deal with yet another headache? So much simpler just to ignore them. And if ecologists do, per chance, achieve something, it’s never late to join them and take the helm,” said Zolotkov.
One telling example of such tactic is the energy efficiency and energy economy agenda that is being actively promoted by the current Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, and former president, now Prime Minister Putin. This is exactly the policies that environmental organisations both in Murmansk Region and across Russia as a whole have advocated for years.

Murmansk has a highly impressive potential for the use of renewable energy sources, such as wind, water, and tidal power. All the authorities need to do is step up the effort. Yet, Dmitriyenko’s government is only continuing on with what was started by his predecessor Yevdokimov, shying away from any new initiatives. This passivity has its own reasoning behind it: The economic crisis.
So what is it exactly that environmentalists want from Murmansk’s governor? According to the Northern Coalition, the following are issues of most immediate concern that require involvement on the part of local officials:
1. Creating a national park in the Khibiny mountains and enhancing support for the already existing specially protected natural areas.

2. Establishing conditions for the separate collection and reprocessing of solid domestic waste.

3. Conducting a thorough environmental risk study for the projects of development of the Shtokman gas condensate field and the Teriberka-Volkhov gas pipeline.

4. Decommissioning the old reactors in operation at the Kola Nuclear Power Plant.

5. Developing renewable energy sources and enhancing their share in the region’s energy economy.

6. Developing measures to protect the region’s population from genetically modified organisms.

7. Reducing air and water pollution resulting from the operation of industrial sites and the use of road transport.

8. Creating so-called territories of traditional use of natural resources in areas populated by the Sami, the indigenous minority of the Kola Peninsula.

In the long run, Murmansk’s authorities cannot escape the realisation that a clean environment is a cornerstone of life for those living in the Russian north. According to various polls, no fewer than 70 percent of the region’s residents are concerned with issues relating to the well-being of their environment. Tackling these issues is hardly possible without the work of public environmental organisations.