Whether deeds will follow words is uncertain.
President Vladimir Putin — who has reviled and jailed environmentalists as spies and traitors — said yesterday in an appearance that may signal a drastic change in the Kremlins ecological tone that Russias current environmental condition is in need of a serious overhaul.
The Russian president, one of whos first acts as the chief of the Russian state was to abolish the State Committee for Environmental Protection — whose functions were then transferred to the Ministry of Natural Resources admitted Wednesday at a board meeting of his State Council of top advisors, that the elimination of the government agency had been a mistake. This may have been obvious enough from an environmental point of view at the time, given that the main objective of the Ministry of Natural Resources is selling Russian oil, gas and wood, but Putins strong critique of liquidating the environmental body came as a surprise to Russias environmental lobby.
We need an integrated state ecological policy, said Putin.
Weve had a lot of reorganizations lately, but a system based on assigning the same department both the functions of official environmental control and the management of the economic use of those natural resources is disadvantageous.
Putins analysis of Russias ecological condition — which came yesterday, on the eve of World Environment Day — challenged the government’s existing system of management, which he said had serious defects that do not ensure appropriate divisions of mandates among government agencies.
The Cat Guarding the Cream
The State Committee for Environmental Protection was abolished on May 17, 2000 by Putins signature of Decree no. 867. The same decree also liquidated the Federal Foresty Service, transferring their functions to an economically driven ministry that was more than happy to reign in environmental preservation.
According to a vivid comparison, made by environmentalists, who criticized the president for this step, a cat was made a guard of cream. Now, it seems, Putins position has changed.
What has made this so is still a matter of guesswork, but the announcement may have been a bow to the 30th celebration of World Environmental Day, which was created by the UN to focus the attention of governments and their citizens on ecological problems throughout the world.
In Russias case, the continual pile-up of environmental catastrophes is partially explained by its outmoded governmental bureaucracies.
This year Russian authorities unexpectedly started to admit the faults of this system.
Reforming the laws
During his speech, the president urged fundamental reforms for Russian laws governing environmental protection.
We have a paradoxical situation, said Putin. In fact, there are no legal mechanisms to compensate environmental harm from economic activity. And this is mostly why we face a permanent shortage of money for ecological programs.
But the enterprises bear no responsibility for harm to the environment. They are not interested in investing into ecological measures, he added.
Putin also mentioned an unpleasant gift that was handed out to Russians exactly one year ago on World Environment Day, June 5, 2002. On that day, the Supreme Court declared that enterprises that pollute the environment dont have to pay taxes on their toxic discharges. This situation was the result of discrepancies between old laws and the new Tax Code, and the new laws had not yet been written. The so-far protracted drafting of these laws falls into the hands of the Ministry of Natural Resources.
Now, according to the president, a bill on compensation for negative environmental impact has finally been brought before the Russian government for consideration. Bills mandating that enterprises purchase ecological insurance to compensate for communities and individuals harmed by industrial pollution, and ecological audits for all Russian companies to assess their possible environmental impact are also on the way, said Putin.
Up to 15% of Russian regions are on the brink of ecological disaster, said the president. The situation in industrial centers of Siberia and the Urals is the most appalling.
Crucial to Russia solving these problems is its participation in international projects. Principal among these problems, said Putin, is the decommissioning of chemical weapons and dealing with radioactive waste — the latter of which was surely a reference to Russias signing of the Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Program for Russia, or MNEPR, inked by 10 European countries and the United States on May 21, in Stockholm.
In Nikitins opinion, it is critical for the government to pay attention to ecological problems, because more than 580 square kilometers of Russias territory are contaminated to various degrees by radioactivity. But the money to deal with these problems, he said, never materializes because the government says it is too scarce.
For its part, the State Council suggested yesterday that Putin should set up a single environmental watchdog council within his administration and finalize Russia’s position on the Kyoto Protocol — which obliges signatory nations to limit carbon dioxide emissions — in time for the Moscow world climate conference in September.
A similar suggestion came to the president from the Center for Environmental Policy of Russia, a non-governmental think-tank, headed by ex-President Boris Yeltsins former ecological adviser, academician Alexey Yablokov.
Russias chapter of Greenpeace has also insisted that Moscow should sign the Kyoto protocol and held an unsanctioned rally on Wednesday in front of the Ministry of Economic Development. The activists told the press that they hadnt filed a request for the rally because the authorities would have banned the protest anyway.
The environmentalists accuse the ministry of sabotaging the Russian State Duma’s ratification of Kyoto Protocol. The agreement cannot come into force worldwide until Russia — responsible for 17 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions — ratifies the deal. So far 106 countries — which are collectively responsible for 43 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide output have signed on to the protocol. Another condition for the protocol to go into effect, countries producing collectively at least 55 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide output must all sign. Russias ratification, therefore, would be the deal-breaker, bringing worldwide participation to 60 percent.
In April, 2002, the Russian government approved the ratification and charged the Ministry of Economic Development with drafting the bills providing the legal basis for the Kyoto Protocols ratification by Russia. The ministry was given three months to accomplish this task, but the drafts have not yet been completed.
Bellonas experts said Thursday that the Kyoto Protocol presents Russia with a real possibility to enter into the international process of solving environmental problems and improving the worldwide energy system — and with minimal investment because of its current low emissions levels. Under the Kyoto system, each signatory nation is allowed a quota of emissions. Each country exceeding those preset emissions standards is then required to pay signatory countries that have not exceeded their standards.
Russian police harass environmentalists
Russias currenlty low emissions guarantee that it will remain within its Kyoto standard emissions for at least another 20 years. This time frame and cash flow from Kyoto nations that may exceed their emissions standards will offer Russia an incentive to pursue clean energy technologies.
In spite of the positive gains that would come from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, five environmental activists were nonetheless detained while protesting Wednesday in front of the Ministry of Economic Development. With them they carried a placard accusing the ministry of sabotaging the protocol as well as mobile phones on which they tried to speak to ministry officials.
According to the activists, however, ministry officials refused to talk to them. The rally continued for an hour before police intervened and detained the activists.
This is not the first time in recent weeks that police have broken up environmental rallies. In May, 12 activists from different Russian cities, who participated in an anti-plutonium rally in front of the Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, in Moscow, were detained by police and held for 20 hours without food or water. Such treatment, according to the activists, was a reprisal for not admitting to police charges of disobedience.
Vladimir Slivyak, of Ecodefense!, an anti-nuclear group that organized the protest, said that 10 of the activists had been in court Tuesday and were told they would be punished with either a fine of 500 rubles or 15 days in jail — though the court would not stipulate which sentence it would eventually hand down. Slivyak himself will be in court on June 11.
The verdict was based on testimony of one single witness: Nikolai Shingarev, the head of Minatoms office for public relations, who said during the hearing that the environmentalists had impeded access to Minatoms premises.
Copies of videos and photos shot during the rally — and reviewed by Bellona Web — show clearly that the activists were not obstructing entrance to Minatom, though none of these recordings were considered as evidence at the Tuesday hearings.
Putin admits importance of NGOs
On Wednesday, Putin tried to disassociate himself from these recent police actions, saying: NGOs can play an essential role in environmental education and in the creation of a system of public environmental control.
But the Presidents statements are well known to remain most often merely well-crafted rhetoric.
Putins recognition of his faults in the liquidation of the State Committee for Environmental Protection, in the situation when polluters dont pay, and in [the state’s] reluctance to have any contact with environmental NGOs, sounds encouraging. But its not known what will follow the Kremlin’s ecological initiatives, Bellonas Nikitin said.