Comment: Putin and ecology

Publish date: August 29, 2010

Written by: Vladimir Slivyak

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW – On August 27, as the bitter controversy surrounding the clear-cutting of Moscow’s Khimki forest – the felling was started to make room for a new Moscow-St. Petersburg motorway – and environmentalists fighting to protect it had reached it peak, with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stepping in with an order to suspend the felling for “further analysis,” Prime Minister Vladimir Putin weighed in with a comment of his own. Bellona’s regular contributor Vladimir Slivyak offers a short review of the situation – and Putin's true ecological credentials.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin answered questions during a press briefing in Khabarovsk on August 27, 2010 (quoted here from the official English-language translation of the briefing’s transcript). For background on the situation in Khimki, please see Bellona’s coverage, for instance, here and here.

Question: I would like to ask you to comment on the situation regarding the Khimki Forest. This issue came up yesterday… How would you comment on that?

Vladimir Putin: First, there is always a natural contradiction between development and nature conservation. But it is clear that we need to build that new motorway just as we need to build other infrastructure facilities, for example, new homes, to improve people’s quality of life.

…I would like to draw your attention to the fact that we have always paid great attention to nature conservation issues. Just take for example how long discussions about building the pipeline to the Pacific Ocean lasted. Eventually, a decision was taken to build the pipeline 400 km away from the drainage basin of Lake Baikal.

Just recall how meticulous we were in our discussions of where to locate the Olympic venues in Sochi. Eventually we made concessions to environmental organisations and I myself took the decision to relocate certain venues. We even set aside additional funds for this.

Nor should we forget the discussions about the Nord Stream pipeline. We worked in very close cooperation with experts and international environmental protection organisations and managed to make the best possible decision.

All this reflects our approach to these issues, and demonstrates what we have done in previous years. Unfortunately, and this is clear, environmental issues are sometimes used for commercial gain.

Both then and now we have had every reason to believe that the campaign against the construction of port facilities in Russia’s north-west, in the Gulf of Finland, was fuelled by our competitors. We have reliable information on that.

Environmental issues are sometimes also used for political ends, as was the case with the Nord Stream project. In these situations it is best to arm yourself with patience and try not to let yourself be guided by others’ ambitions, first of all, the authorities’ ambitions. However, I must say that representatives of various environmental organisations have their ambitions, too. It is a universal vice.

We have also faced situations when certain people came to us and said: “Nothing personal, just business. You’ll have to pay. And you’d better do so immediately.” And they named very specific sums.

I don’t mean to suggest that we are in a situation like this now.

I believe that the decision made on this was sound and correct. It was an issue Dmitry Medvedev and I discussed.

I would like to repeat that this decision is in full keeping with our approach and our actions to date. Is that all? All the best.

So Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made a number of statements regarding ecology. In particular, he has voiced his support for the decision made by President Dmitry Medvedev, who just a few days ago ordered a halt on the forest felling in Khimki pending “further analysis” of the highway project. To be sure, it wouldn’t have hurt to have that analysis done before the felling began, but that’s not the point right now. Besides giving his assessment of the president’s actions, the prime minister has also shared with us how he has been blackmailed by environmental organisations. Right. As in, here comes a bunch of ecologists and says: “Give it up, pal. Give us the money – or else.” I’d like to lay my eyes on those ecologists, if they exist in nature, who would have the gall to knock on Putin’s door and demand money, let alone to make threats to the omnipotent premier. No environmental organisation, not even the boldest one, I don’t think, would have a snowball’s chance in hell to survive a day after an exchange like that.

Putin’s statements, imbued to the brim as they are with his deep love for nature, remind one of the first years of his reign when he said that when he was no longer president, he would go work for Greenpeace. Something must have really thrown a monkey wrench in the works, seeing as that job application apparently never made its way onto a Greenpeace HR manager’s desk. Whatever the case, the premier must really be harbouring some deep-seated, if mixed, feelings toward ecologists.

A few years back, Putin the then president launched an all-out harassment campaign against environmental NGOs saying they were fronting for spies. Now, apparently, they are engaged in blackmail and plotting in cahoots with some shady third-party business interests. The only thing I can’t quite grasp here is why Vladimir Putin would still be in such fear of the environmental movement as to be compelled to try to discredit it at every step. He has done as much harm already to weaken its positions as no questionable environmental campaigns could ever do combined. And he still can’t leave environmentalists alone.

Personally, Putin loves nature very much and takes very good care of it – or so his statements tell us. There, look at him rerouting the oil pipeline away from Lake Baikal or, just now, lending President Medvedev his shoulder to lean on as the pair speak in defence of the Khimki Forest. Never mind that the oil pipeline wasn’t actually moved that far away from the lake. Or that ruptures showed in the pipeline within the first few months after it went into use. So, basically, Putin doesn’t have anything against oil spills, but best that the oil would spill some ways away from Baikal’s shores, anywhere else but there is fine.

Or this felling business in Khimki. It didn’t begin yesterday, did it? It’s been going on almost a month now. How hard was it, really, for Medvedev and Putin to issue a halt order at the very beginning, when the protests started?

Or take the import of nuclear waste into Russia. It was none other than Putin who put Sergei Kiriyenko in charge of the state nuclear corporation Rosatom, and Kiriyenko is using every opportunity to publicly reiterate, time and again, that his agency has no plans to import radioactive waste into Russia. Yet it is imported into Russia, year after year. Several thousand tonnes of uranium tails were shipped from Germany and France in 2009. Nine hundred and fifty-one spent fuel assemblies are expected to be shipped from the German research reactor in Rossendorf at the end of 2010. If Putin is so keen on protecting the environment, shouldn’t he be doing something about it? Something as intrepid and authoritative as his decisions were when he did away with the last state agency responsible for environmental protection in order to provide more propitious conditions for close business interests – in effect, destroying the last line of defence that would keep industrial polluters within sound ecological limits? Or when the practice of state-mandated environmental impact assessments was being abolished?

So let him protect the environment. In close cooperation? Brilliant. Meticulously? Nothing could be better. In whatever way it pleases him. Because what’s important in the end is not how, but what the result is – that Russia gets no more imports of nuclear waste onto its territory. He could, for instance, revoke those 2001 amendments to the Law on the Protection of the Natural Environment that allowed spent nuclear fuel imports into Russia. When ex-President Boris Yeltsin was in charge, the government didn’t treat the suggestions to turn Russia into a dumping ground for foreign nuclear waste with anything other than derision, if not outright disgust. Come Putin, and the idea got the support it needed. The new legislation was passed by the parliament and signed by Putin into law.

So what’s the plan now? Making sure the assaults on the environment or stand-offs like in Khimki don’t happen again or waiting for a nuclear catastrophe or another outburst of public indignation, after which, again, the posturing, the image building of a hero and a nation saviour, and the correcting of mistakes that didn’t have to be made in the first place?

(This comment appeared originally in a reduced form on August 27 on the air of KommersantFM, a radio station managed by the Kommersant publishing house, which also publishes one of Russia’s leading business dailies).