COMMENT: The president’s nature: What kind of environmental leadership can we expect from Vladimir Putin in his new term at Russia’s helm?

George Chikovani

Publish date: May 7, 2012

Written by: Vladimir Slivyak

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

The answer, as it often happens, is supplied by the very question. To what extent is the ex-turned-new president of Russia responsible for the utter ruin that is the current state of Russia’s environment? Looking back over the years since Vladimir Putin first took the reins on New Year’s eve of 2000, ‘ailing’ might be too generous a word to describe what has passed for the country’s environmental policy. And as we watch Putin re-take his presidential oath this Monday, the question of how heavy a hand he has had in today’s ecological devastation is scarcely an idle one.

Indeed, who is truly accountable for, say, the ever growing statistics of accidents and disasters Russia has to grapple with year by year – an achievement as dubious as it is dismal, considering the efficient environmental protection systems other developed nations have at their disposal.

Could it be the unenlightened masses who just won’t learn to live right? Or the devious advisers keeping the leader out of the loop? Barring that, it must be Russia’s enemies – everyone knows they are out there, scheming. Or at the very least, all these problems are definitely the onerous legacy of ubiquitous Soviet-era disrepair Russia got saddled with after the collapse of the USSR.

If we find the right culprit, we just might be able to understand what to expect in the six or – quite possibly – twelve years ahead.

For one thing, what erupts as a natural disaster starts much less frequently in nature’s fatal conspiracy against man, as one might think, than in certain very specific failures of management. The wildfires that suffocated Moscow and raged across much of Central Russia in the summer of 2010 did not come about so much on account of the unfortunate weather conditions as they did because of the total breakdown of the systems responsible for forest administration. It was not the scorching heat but the incompetent forest management policies that had produced inability to implement any fire prevention measures. More than a few calamities Russia has sustained of late can be traced back to similar fiascos, all leading to colossal material losses – not to mention the continuous harm to public health that occurs as a result of the immense damage to the environment.

No, the state environmental protection system Putin inherited when he first took the helm twelve years ago was not an ideal well-oiled machine. But it was there. On May 17, 2000, the however-imperfect independent state authority that performed environmental supervision functions in Russia ceased to exist.

To be sure, state regulation was not completely removed from the environmental protection domain. But it was gutted exactly so that what was left was what best served the purposes of the emerging political system: the Ministry of Natural Resources, an agency that presides over the often barbarous practice of utilizing these resources and determines the rules for who is invited to partake of the ravaging and who gets banned from the club.

For a country that finds itself in an ecological crisis of catastrophic proportions, this state of affairs is a disgrace. The likes of this aren’t found in any self-respecting nation. It delivers a clear and unequivocal message from the government that the country’s leadership could care less about the environment or the health of the population it has been put in power to serve. Even as the loss of natural and human resources brought by such negligence costs the country its economic well-being. This was the first direct ecological consequence of Putin’s rise to power.

What followed was a systematic dismantlement of the remaining layers of ecological protection – the abolishment of a fully functional procedure of state environmental impact evaluation, the revision of the forestry, water, and urban development laws, and the numerous crippling amendments to federal environmental legislation. The only resistance that was offered to this sweeping offensive was put up by ecological organizations, whose resources were hardly a match to those the “young and energetic Russian leader” had the luxury of relying on. Those treading the corridors of power never did hide the fact that the elimination of ecological restraints was being initiated by the large business interests with ties to Putin and his cohorts.

Both in his tenure as president and then as the country’s prime minister, Putin made repeated statements about the weakness of Russia’s civil society. In 2000, the Russian ecological movement attempted to organize a national ecological referendum. Two million signatures were collected, in full compliance with the law, in over a half of Russian regions within three months. The Central Election Commission rejected exactly enough of these signatures as invalid so that a few signatures short of the required two million were left, thus using the pretense of observing procedure to stop a popular vote from taking place. But more importantly, a “weak” civil society would not have managed to accomplish a campaign of such scale. Unfortunately, when ecologists challenged the Commission’s decision, courts sided with the state, even though many referendum supporters personally brought suits to prove the authenticity of their signatures.

For the government, this was a lesson it would not forget. Putting up with a civil ecological movement that was capable of mobilizing the public’s support in such a short time was too much of a risk. That the government understood it didn’t take too long to show: Soon the Kremlin moved to introduce drastic changes to the legislation, making it ever tougher for non-governmental organizations to pass or maintain state registration or receive the funding they depended on for survival. And even though the official pretext was weeding out those suspect NGOs that might be “in collusion with Western intelligence services” – this was a period when “spymania” cases against environmentalists and scientists were quickly becoming a regular part of the news media’s coverage – the harshest blow was dealt to the poorest organizations that had never enjoyed financial backing from any foreign funds.

The national referendum initiative had arisen in 2000 to block the passing of a new law that the government had set about ramrodding through the parliament – a bill allowing the import of nuclear waste into Russia. Technically, the language of the law permits import of spent nuclear fuel burnt in foreign commercial reactors – material containing substances that will remain highly hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years, with plutonium alone having a half-life period of 24,000 years – for reprocessing and storage prior to actual reprocessing. But the law puts no limit on the duration of the storage period. Furthermore, the only enterprise in Russia that can reprocess this kind of waste at all – the notorious Mayak Chemical Combine in Chelyabinsk Region of the Southern Urals – is already a site of an ecological disaster. The dumping of radioactive waste into the surrounding lakes and rivers that has taken place there for decades has earned it the reputation of the most contaminated place on the planet.

Regardless, since 2001, foreign nuclear waste can be imported into Russia for indefinite periods of time. All it takes is a mention in the import documents stating that the waste is intended for reprocessing sometime in the future. The Russian State Nuclear Corporation Rosatom gets to line its pockets with money such imports will bring. The Russian taxpayers, both living and the thousands of generations to come, get to foot the bill for the storage facilities and the safety and security costs. This, too, is a direct consequence of Putin’s rule: It was exactly during his first year as president that the government’s radical change of policy made this nuclear waste import law possible.

By the time Putin was first sworn in as president, Russia had still been struggling with the environmental woes that had lingered over from the Soviet time. But those steps and decisions that his government was to make in the following decade served to augment and multiply them manifold. Most of the legislative changes were undertaken in the early 2000s. But that’s not to say that Putin’s policies became any less anti-environmental when he stepped down and assumed the post of prime minister in 2008.

Late 2009 saw the closure of the Baikal paper mill, an enterprise that had been poisoning the unique lake with its toxic wastes for nearly half a century. The plant, as it then seemed, was finally shut down for good. But come January 2010, Putin signed a decree that reopened the mill without any changes in the technologies in use there. Moreover, the document provides other polluters with ample leeway to continue business as usual.

That same year, the Russian parliament lands a new bill for consideration – the Law on Management of Radioactive Waste. In the decades since the advent of the nuclear industry, Russia has accumulated over half a billion tons of radioactive waste, but no one seems to be lifting a finger to even try to do something about the problem. Then, at long last, the draft of a law that might finally offer some much-needed regulation – a most important step. So why, instead of applauding the measure, would ecologists organize a country-wide campaign collecting thousands of letters to protest the bill? Because created under the guise of a law intended to solve the waste problem was a document that greenlights unbridled pollution –including, among other things, pumping radioactive waste underground into water-bearing layers.

Furthermore, the law strips the population of any right to decide where to build storage facilities for radioactive waste. Any place in the country is now free game to be chosen by the state for a repository, turning a blooming piece of nature into a nuclear outhouse. All that is required is the support of the local administration, which, given rampant corruption, will hardly be an issue. And that’s just the waste already accumulated. Let’s not forget the still active reactor construction program, which envisions building dozens of new nuclear reactors with price tags so far beyond any reasonable bounds it makes no sense to even compare their costs with other energy sources.

Speaking of the nuclear power industry, the “no strings attached and no questions asked” privilege to keep receiving billions of roubles from the state budget seems to help Rosatom none where quality of new construction is concerned. Last year, the carcass of a reactor containment building collapsed at the site of the second line of Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, near St. Petersburg. Cracks were detected in the foundation of the second line of Novovoronezh Nuclear Power Plant, in Voronezh Region in Western European Russia. The fourth reactor of Kalinin Nuclear Power Plant, about 200 kilometers west of Moscow, was taken offline for repairs almost immediately after it was launched by Putin with much pomp at the end of 2011. Several months later, a new scandal shook the nuclear industry when ZiO-Podolsk, a supplier of power plant equipment, including to nuclear power plants, was reported to be under investigation for a corruption scheme involving use of sub-quality materials for manufacturing purposes. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and how deep under water this perpetual “appropriation” of the nuclear billions goes is anyone’s guess.

But what do the problems with new reactor construction have to do with Putin? As last year’s tremendous disaster at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan has shown, a nuclear catastrophe does not have to be caused solely by an equipment failure or forces of nature: Absence of proper supervision on the part of the state will suffice. The same absence of supervision and the same “perfect understanding” between the industry and the government that we have observed in Russia in the past years. Both the sky-high levels of corruption that reigns in the Russian nuclear industry as freely as it does in the rest of the country and the carte blanche that Rosatom continues to enjoy are among the highlights of Putin’s record as president and prime minister.

One could go forever listing the anti-environmental achievements that have taken place on Putin’s watch. Conclusions are more important, and two main points best summarize the experience of the past twelve years, possibly giving us a peek at the twelve years ahead.

One: The government is unconcerned with the condition of the country’s environment. Sometimes big industrial projects under development just cannot be made safe, and if that’s the case, they have to be abandoned. But it happens much more frequently that environmentally dangerous projects can be made more ecologically sound at a minimal cost, or even at no cost at all. Yet they are not. And when they suddenly run into grassroots opposition, the common response is to introduce cosmetic alterations, with the essence – the risks to public health and the environment – left unchanged. A number of regions in Russia suffer from levels of pollution that are no less catastrophic or tangible than the more manifest natural disasters Russia is regularly hit with. But the government remains unperturbed, oblivious to its duty to improve the ecological well-being of the country at least in those areas where most of the population is concentrated. The health of the population and its ability to perform as a workforce, even its sheer numbers are declining, while the owners of hazardous plants and factories whose operations will one day turn Russia into a wasteland keep their money machines rolling, confident as they are that the state will always cover their backs.

Two: Putin’s government has consciously taken the right to participate in making environmentally significant decisions away from the public, and it’s not going to give it back without a fight. Those involved in corruption schemes and earning billions at the environment’s expense have too much at stake to back down now. Nor is engaging in a dialogue with the population part of the Russian political tradition anyway, lest such indulgence be perceived as weakness. The result, again, is the bulging coffers of the worst polluters and the deteriorating state of the environment in the country. Certainly, neither the West’s nefarious plotting against Russia, nor the conniving ministers are responsible for that.

The system built by Putin will not change by itself. If we want ecological prosperity for our country, this system, which survives by disregarding the existing or creating new environmental threats, must be changed by us. It is not impossible: Even in the face of the many obstacles, the Russian civil movement has gained its share of important ecological victories in the past decade; the 2009 dissolution of the contract by which Russia previously imported radioactive waste from Germany is one.

But the truth is also that these successes are achieved not thanks to but in spite of the laws of the system Putin has built in the past twelve years. This well prepares us for the next six or twelve, and gives us hope.

P. S. On May 6, around 50,000 participated in a protest march against Putin’s upcoming inauguration. The police brutally squashed the rally; a thousand protesters were detained, hundreds were injured. This was the most vicious Moscow had yet seen its police act when dispersing a peaceful protest. And if anything, the strongest indication that the continuing clampdown on the rights and liberties and denying the population its essential needs is something the Russian public has not forgotten or is willing to accept.  

Vladimir Slivyak, frequent contributor to Bellona, is co-chairman of Ecodefense! and author of the recently published “From Hiroshima to Fukushima,” an account of the nuclear industry’s most recent history, combining a detailed chronicle of the 2011 disaster at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan and an in-depth analysis of the industry’s problems in Russia.