Issue No. 8

Publish date: August 1, 2003

There is this picturesque place near Vladimirsk, a small village called Dubrovka. A forest, fields, a beautiful lake, and a brook, Sherna. The weeping willows droop down to the brook. You can't resist a splash in this cool fresh water on hot summer days… That, however, is not recommended: Sherna is befouled up to the banks with waste from the region's industrial plants.

On the one hand, we should be glad the industry is still kicking. But on the other hand… is there really much to be happy about if the plants’ smooth run is secured at the expense of the ruined environment?

I remember something President Putin said once: “Industrial growth coupled with the lack of due environmental work can lead to aggravation of ecological problems”. Oh yes, our president does say the just right and clever words at times. It’s just that nothing solid follows. And this is true not only with regard to the environment.

Is his voice too soft? Or does he address the wrong officials? Or does he believe at all what he says? As in, you know, he is the president, and being one he’s just supposed to say the right and clever words. And after that-who cares? But, as they say in certain circles, watch how your tongue flaps, or else. Especially-when a new election is near at hand.

Speaking of elections. In my subjective view, the previous election race teemed in slogans calling for keeping our environment clean. These days, somehow, the call is barely heard. Why? No more problems with the environment? By no means. Looks to me the subject is simply not as fashionable as it used to be. Had Putin mentioned environmental issues sometime closer to the election, the odds are the “green” movement would have had more supporters than it could ever dream of.
And another thing about the election. If, among the candidates, you happen to see an incumbent, make an effort and check how that “right honourable deputy” voted on the import of spent nuclear fuel into Russia. This alone will tell you loads about the candidate-and who you’d better punch your ballot for.

Political campaigning for the sake of campaigning could kill any potential achievements. Remember how united we stood to eradicate the problem of homeless youths? That’s right, Putin said the magic words. Soon enough, the problem was dropped. Different times, different words, different trends.

It is in bad taste anymore to criticise the president for the clearly failing state policy regarding the Chechen problem. It is no longer the rage to speak out about the state of Russia violating the rights of Russian citizens. But a change of fashion doesn’t abate these problems and violations.

The autumn promises some very hot days-congresses and conferences to be held by ecologists and human rights activists, pre-election battles, petty “black PR” intrigues of all manner… But once the campaign is over, all the words, even the right and clever ones, will be buried in the daily routine. New times bring new slogans.

All the problems of Russia are rooted in the fact that neither the people, nor the bureaucrats are accustomed to bearing responsibility for the words they say. The crowd is silent… it’s so well known: “Nothing depends on us”. Bureaucrats use more words to wriggle out of the heaps of words they’ve already said because they know they’ll never be punished for their irresponsibility and inaction. That is why the cartload of old problems is right where it started. Not long ago, for instance, I was surprised to find out that they still have not completed the stage-by-stage elimination of the damage that resulted when a nuclear reactor of one of the Pacific Fleet’s submarines exploded in Chazhma Bay in the Primorsk region in August of 1985. They say that funds doled out specifically for that purpose do get transferred to Primorsk, in small portions-but steadily enough. Where does this money end up, I wonder?

Recently, I think I got to see the money allocated by the state for the reconstruction of the war-devastated Chechen republic: it took the form of luxurious palaces outside Moscow, along Rublevo and Rublevo-Uspensk Highways, in the dacha settlements of Barvikha and Nikolina Gora-villages populated by the highest-ranking members of the Russian political elite. How many more places like that are there in Russia? Is that the same funnel that sucked up the money that should and could have been used to solve numerous environmental issues? How many Shernas brooks could have been cleaned with those millions and billions of dollars?

I hear that issues of environmental safety in Russia are already on the State Duma’s autumn agenda. By law, it is prohibited to keep information on environmental safety secret. Another law says it is the responsibility of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, to maintain the country’s safety and security-including the well-being of the environment. But it only takes one look at a report on environmental safety issued by the Russian Human Rights Ombudsman to realise that our secret police are not only incapable of apprehending terrorists before they fulfil their murderous plans, but are also more than indulgent towards polluters.

In all of what we call civilised countries, environmental issues have long been given the same priority as economic and political ones. The well-developed countries have realised that the right to live in a healthy, favourable environment is as vital as the inalienable human rights to live, work, and get an education. It looks like in our country, we have set different priorities. Wouldn’t it be good if the Prosecutor General’s Office applied the same zeal they show when they’re after certain oligarchs to monitoring Environmental Prosecutors’ offices, which are supposed to enforce laws on ecology throughout the country? But all is quiet on the environmental front.

They must be waiting for the right words by the president.
Grigory Pasko
Environment & Rights #8, August 2003