ST. PETERSBURG – Russia and Sweden have found themselves amid an international scandal stemming from allegations that Russia dumped radioactive waste and chemical weapons into the Baltic Sea in the early 1990s – and that Sweden disregarded later reports of the discharges.
The Russian military are responsible for chemical and radioactive pollution off the coast of the Swedish island of Gotland, the Swedish channel Sveriges Television (SVT) charged in early February.
But Russia’s prominent environmentalist, academician Alexei Yablokov, who served as an advisor to the late President Boris Yeltsin, and who further would be unflinching in casting stones at the Kremlin for shady radioactive waste dumping practices, told SVT that the allegations are dubious.
In a documentary that aired on SVT, journalists quoted the former Swedish secret service officer Donald Forsberg, who said radioactive waste and chemical weapons were being unloaded into the area between 1989 and 1992. The materials buried there at sea had allegedly come from a Soviet military base in Liepaja, Latvia, following the Russians’ hurried retreat from that Soviet republic after the break-up of the USSR.
Russian vessels allegedly sank dozens of barrels of chemical weapons and radioactive material, SVT reported in its documentary. “They just sailed out at night and dumped in two areas,” Forsberg told SVT.
Adding fuel to the fire are allegations from Sven Olof Pettersson, a political adviser to the late Swedish stateswoman Anna Lindh, that the Swedish government may have learnt of the alleged dumping as long as 10 years ago, but never undertook any measures to remedy the situation.
According to SVT, the secret services allegedly reported the situation to the government in 1999 and 2000. Unidentified sources cited by the journalists claim the then Foreign Minister Lindh requested that an investigation be carried out by the Ministry of Defence. The latter, however, apparently deemed it would be too costly to search the area for the exact dumping spots.
According to the Swedish radio station Radio Sweden, the allegations came as a complete surprise to the current government in Stockholm. Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt’s spokeswoman told the press that he “didn’t know about the issue.”
“This is new information for the [current] government. What we are saying is that questions should be directed to the previous governments,” Reinfeldt’s office said.
The current foreign minister Carl Bildt, who was prime minister between 1991 and 1994, also denied any knowledge of the dumping, according to media reports. Prosecutors are currently investigating the claims.
No official comments have yet been offered by Russian authorities. The Russian embassy in Sweden has declined to provide any statements, saying the issue is being examined in Moscow.
Academician Yablokov, is sceptical about the charges. At the time, he was working for Russian President Boris Yeltsin, leading an inquiry into nuclear dumping in the Arctic. In an interview he gave to Radio Sweden, as reported by the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti, he said the alleged dumping was unlikely.
“I am more than certain that there were no radioactive discharges in the Baltic in the early 1990s,” RIA-Novosti reported him as saying. He also called into question the likelihood of any chemical discharges at the time.
Yet, the scandal is far from fading from the headlines of European news outlets. The media point out that as the Baltic Sea is almost entirely landlocked, it takes a long time to flush out toxins. This makes it particularly vulnerable to pollution.
The charges of contamination and cover-up emerged shortly before the February 10th Baltic Sea Action Summit in Helsinki, which gathered together regional leaders to discuss anti-pollution measures. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was one of the participants.
Speculations remain why, in fact, the information surfaced when it did. Some experts venture that one reason may be Russia’s ongoing development of a major gas pipeline project – the controversial Nord Stream, which is planned to be laid across the Baltic seabed.
Others link the documentary to the next parliamentary election in Sweden, scheduled to be held in September this year.
During this election, the party of the incumbent Prime Minister Reinfeldt is expected to face tough competition from the race’s current leaders, Social Democrats – whose predecessors allegedly turned a blind eye to the Soviets’ reported discharges of hazardous waste into the Baltic.