Russian History


The Response to Environmental Problems

In the half-decade that began with the Chernobyl' disaster and culminated in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, substantial changes took place in the public's attitudes toward environmental crises. The public engaged in unprecedented discussion about the dangers the state's environmental policies posed to public health. According to surveys, the public's main concerns were local problems having immediate impact, such as polluted water supplies, violation of public health regulations, and air pollution. Russians were much less interested in more general and fundamental issues such as loss of biodiversity, deforestation, and acid rain. In 1989 a national poll placed environmental pollution fifth among citizens' major concerns, but only one-third of respondents expressed their willingness to sacrifice economically to improve the situation. Nevertheless, a substantial green movement arose in the late 1980s. Fragmented by disagreement over politicization and national versus local agendas, parts of the movement branched into other areas of activism such as human rights and regional autonomy, and no single green party emerged.

Public enthusiasm for environmental improvement followed the same curve as enthusiasm for democratic and economic reform; by 1992 economic hardship began to wilt the zeal for reform, and the vast majority of Russians remained skeptical of political change throughout the early 1990s. As worsening economic conditions heightened short-term insecurity, issues such as environmental protection paled, especially in cases where the shutting of a polluting plant threatened the livelihood of a town or city.

Politicians and government policy generally followed the same pattern as citizen concern in the early and mid-1990s. In 1988 the initial groundswell of environmental concern stimulated the Gorbachev government to form the State Committee for the Protection of Nature (Gosudarstvennyy komitet po okhrane prirody--Goskompriroda), an agency given broad responsibilities similar to those of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. In 1992 the Russian Federation used Goskompriroda as the model for a new Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, which received a similar mandate.

In the 1990 elections for Russia's local legislative bodies (soviets) and the republic-level Congress of People's Deputies, virtually every candidate, whether democrat or communist, made the environment a major campaign issue, thus promoting the electorate's awareness that severe problems exist. In 1990 Yablokov was appointed to an influential position as environmental adviser to the president of Russia (a position he continued to hold in the Russian Federation after 1991), and powerful environmental commissions were formed in the local soviets of Moscow and other cities. In the early 1990s, such soviets blocked many large, environmentally dubious projects of the central government, such as the activation of the Northern Thermoelectric Center near Moscow, and of various local jurisdictions tied to national monopolies, such as the State Construction Committee (Goskomstroy) and the Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom).

By the time of the parliamentary elections of 1993, however, the political atmosphere had changed. Most environmental activists either abstained from political activity or merged their single-issue efforts with coalitions that might exceed the 5 percent threshold needed for a party to gain representation in the State Duma. Neither strategy had political impact because environmental views were lost in the coalitions' agendas. Among the major parties, only the Yabloko coalition had a separate department for environmental issues. Another major reform-minded party, Russia's Choice, which gained seventy-six seats in 1993, advocated environmental protection through market reform; Russia's minister of environmental protection and natural resources, former communist functionary Viktor Danilov-Danil'yan, was a member of Russia's Choice. However, neither in the campaign nor after assuming office did Danilov-Danil'yan press the party's nominal program of tax stimulation for energy conservation and pollution control. In the 1995 legislative elections, Russia's Democratic Choice (the new name of Russia's Choice) declined dramatically, gaining only nine seats in the new State Duma, although Danilov-Danil'yan remained head of his ministry.

A crucial event was the 1992 appointment of Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister to replace Yegor Gaydar, head of Russia's Choice. Chernomyrdin, former head of the State Natural Gas Company (Gazprom), has made the reinvigoration of Russian industry, and especially the fuel industries, a top priority. A second important event was President Yeltsin's dismissal of the local soviets in his 1993 struggle to consolidate presidential power and curb the growth of regional autonomy. The local dumas that replaced the soviets have been much more solicitous of local economic ambitions.

In the parliamentary elections of 1995, the Kedr (Cedar) coalition (which also had presented a slate in the 1993 election) was the only group among forty-three parties calling itself environmental; however, the party was dominated by businesspeople rather than environmental activists. Kedr candidates received less than 1 percent of the vote and no seats in the new State Duma. Some nongovernmental groups have continued to have political impact, and in 1995 Yablokov hailed a new wave of the green movement. The annual Days of Defense Against Environmental Hazards, which began modestly in 1993, became a national phenomenon the next year and included a speech by President Yeltsin. Public organizations played a major role in establishing the All-Russian Congress for the Protection of Nature under the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources. The national congress is preceded each year by eighty-nine regional congresses, one in each of Russia's political subdivisions. In late 1993, the new Commission on Ecological Security went into operation under the Security Council, with the assignment of assessing the most serious environmental problems as they endanger national security (see The Security Council, ch. 8). Although it was formed with great fanfare, the commission received little funding in its first three years.

In 1994 the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources employed about 21,000 people. In addition, the official Russian environmental protection system included environmental agencies in each of the eighty-nine subnational jurisdictions and also several state committees responsible for the use of mineral, water, and forest resources. In 1993 some 65 percent of the ministry's expenditures went for protection of water quality and 26 percent for protection of air quality. However, the ministry's actions against major polluters remained infrequent despite the 1993 constitution's guarantee of the people's right to a clean environment, to receive information about environmental conditions, and to get compensation for damage to health and property that results from negative ecological conditions. In 1995 Danilov-Danil'yan reported that only twenty-two cases had been brought against alleged polluters in the previous year.

In 1993 Russia's total investment in environmental preservation was about US$2.3 billion, less than 4 percent of the national budget category entitled "industrial construction," in which environmental expenditures are included. That figure was 20 percent less than the 1990 investment. The structure of environmental spending remained substantially the same as it was in 1980: some 58 percent went for protection of water resources, 24 percent for prevention of air pollution, 7 percent for forest management, and only 0.04 percent for nature preserves and species protection (see table 5, Appendix). In most subnational jurisdictions, water pollution receives the most investment because of uniformly serious water conditions.

In 1993 state enterprises and organizations paid 39 percent of environmental costs. As state budget deficits occurred in subsequent years, the amounts from those sources decreased, but the percentage did not because the only other funding sources were local budgets and private environmental foundations. Budgets of subnational jurisdictions often suffered the same deficits as the federal government, and private organizations contributed only 1.4 percent of total investments in 1993. Meanwhile, local economic conditions have combined with weak enforcement funding to promote corruption among local authorities and to encourage poaching, especially in the fishing industry.

In 1991 Yeltsin signed Russia's first comprehensive environmental law, On Environmental Protection. Modeled after a similar Soviet law, it made many general statements about the environmental rights of citizens without setting any specific goals. The law also defined numerous environmental functions for every level of government as well as for citizens and nongovernmental organizations, and it specified environmental regulation of every aspect of society, from health resorts to electromagnetic radiation. The sheer inclusiveness of such provisions made practical enforcement impossible. The other major obstacle to enforcement has been the slow development of Russia's judiciary, which was only a rubber-stamp branch of government in the Soviet system and which totally lacked experience in the area of environmental law (as well as the general theory of Western-style jurisprudence) (see The Criminal Justice System, ch. 10). Before any enforcement could begin, the 1991 law stipulated that numerous other laws had to be passed. The same complex situation has existed at the regional and local government levels. In early 1995, the State Duma passed a law requiring environmental impact assessments for a variety of construction and development projects, including large-scale industrial development, large-scale use of natural resources, city planning, creation of new technology and materials, and modification of existing commercial facilities.

Russia is a signatory of most major international environmental treaties. Among them are the International Tropical Timber Agreement (1983), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES, 1973), the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982), and the Montreal Protocol controlling substances harmful to the ozone layer.