Staunton, April 3 – From the 1970s to earlier this decade, Russian environmental activists focused on the destructive impact of a cellulose plant on Lake Baikal. Indeed, in the last decade, they have mobilized against Moscow’s backing of that plant and even forced Vladimir Putin to back down on it.
(For background on that struggle, see windowoneurasia.blogspot.com/2010/01/window-on-eurasia-putin-sacrifices.html, windowoneurasia.blogspot.com/2010/03/window-on-eurasia-putins-paper-mill.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/02/a-new-crisis-breaks-out-over-fate-of.html.)
Then, beginning in mid-2016, Russian officials opened the way for China to bottle water from Baikal and possibly even pump it into a pipeline for export to China (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2016/05/russian-minister-proposes-diverting.html), moves that outraged many Russians.
Roughly a million of them signed a petition against exporting Baikal’s waters to China and tens of thousands took part in demonstrations against that idea in more than 50 cities in Russia and around the world last month (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/03/nearly-million-russians-have-signed.htmlwindowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/03/tens-of-thousands-of-russians-in-more.html).
Those protests forced Russian official to suspend construction of the bottling factory and put on hold talk of a pipeline (newsland.com/community/7411/content/ostanovleno-stroitelstvo-kitaiskogo-zavoda-na-beregu-baikala/6683155 and themoscowtimes.com/2019/03/11/russian-prosecutors-seek-to-stop-chinese-bottling-factory-at-lake-baikal-a64771).
Russian anger at this idea even prompted one Russian satirical site to suggest that residents of the Transbaikal should throw trash in to the lake so that the Chinese would choke on water from the lake (intersucks.ru/общество/zhiteli-irkutska-sbrasyivayut-v-baykal-nechistotyi-chtobyi-zashhitit-ozero-ot-kitaytsev/).
Now, however, apparently convinced Russians are focusing on China rather than on them, Moscow officials have announced plans to increase the concentration of dangerous substances companies can dump into Lake Baikal by a factor of ten. Such a move will leave the city “dead,” experts say (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2019/04/02/80074-proigraet-durak-more).
The natural resources ministry has clearly miscalculated in assuming that Russians will support the kind of economic growth such environmental degradation will entail. The reverse is almost certainly the case, and those who protested against China’s plans are now likely to do the same but this time against Moscow,
And that means the Kremlin, which under Vladimir Putin has consistently backed economic development and profit at the expense of the environment, has transformed the issue from one in which it could position itself as a defender of Russian interests into a different one in which it and not some foreign country is the enemy.