Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Ecological Protests Again Basis for Broader Political Challenge to Russian System, Analyst Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 25 – The ecological protests in Voronezh oblasts in the course of which a geologists’ camp was burned can become just as environmental activism in 1988 did the basis for political mobilization of the population and ultimately a challenge to the existing political and economic system in the Russian Federation, according to a Russian analyst.

            A generation ago, Sergey Gupalo argued yesterday on the Forum-MSK.ru site, leftist groups in Poltava used protests against environmental activism as the foundation for broader political protests against the CPSU and for the democratization of Soviet society rather than just the creation of a market economy (forum-msk.org/material/region/9949670.html).

            Unfortunately, the left-wing author says, this social energy was hijacked by some in Moscow toward the promotion of “all-human values” in ways that led not to better environmental protection or greater equality but rather toward even greater harm to workers and the world around them by the establishment of unrestrained free market capitalism.

            Now, however, the workers are beginning to stir, just as they did in 1988, and their ecological protests in the Novokhoper district of Voronezh represent “the first phase” of what Gupalo suggests could become “the first phase” of “a new Russian revolution,” just as environmental activism promised to become at the end of Soviet times.

            Although Gupalo’s argument likely is overstated and reflects his hopes more than the facts on the ground, his point that ecological protests can grow into broader ones is true: it happened in Estonia and elsewhere at the end of the Soviet period. Consequently, the events over the weekend in Voronezh and their pre-history deserve more attention than they have received.

            On Saturday, more than 1500 people assembled in the Novokhoper district of Voronezh oblast to protest the presence of a group of geologists who were looking of nickel deposits. After a peaceful meeting, some of those present went to the geologists’ camp and set part of it afire, leading to at least three injuries but no deaths (vz.ru/society/2013/6/23/638426.html and youtube.com/watch?v=vqP2GLJA4us&feature=youtu.be).

            According to local officials, many attending the meeting were nationalists and Cossacks who arrived by bus from Voronezh, Volgograd, Rostov-on-Don, Samara and Krasnodar and those responsible for the torching of the camp were “provocateurs” of yet unspecified origin (forum-msk.org/material/news/9948806.html).

            Viktor Volodatsky, the ataman Cossacks and a member of the Duma defense committee, the Cossacks “wanted to achieve a ban on the mining of nickel [exclusively] by legal means” and the violence against the geologists was “a provocation” designed to allow the local authorities to ignore the demands of the population that no nickel mining take place.

            The residents of Voronezh have a long history of environmental activism. In the 1970s and 1980s, “Vzglyad” reported, they unsuccessfully opposed the opening of five mines in the area; and they have known about current plans to open a nickel mine in their area for more than a year.

            The opponents of nickel mining say that any such mines “will lead to a castatrophic lowering of ground water levels” and thus “destroy local agriculture.  They also doubt” official claims that the mines will provide new jobs and a boost to the economy. Instead, the opponents say, only the Moscow owners of the mine would benefit.

             Opposition to the mines is widespread.  According to a December 2012 poll by the Moscow Institute of Sociology, 98 percent of the residents of the Novokhoper district consider any nickel mining there to be harmful and “a third said they were prepared” to use extra-legal means to block it (kramola.info/vesti/protivostojanie/dobycha-nikelja-v-chernozeme-aktivnye-dejstvija).

            Even before last weekend, some of the residents were prepared to act in that way, and officials have responded with force.  On May 13, for example, a group of environmental activists there were beaten when they set up a protest camp. And the activists have gained support from the expert community in Moscow.

            Experts of the Russian Social Chamber as well as scholars at the Russian Academy of Sciences and Moscow State University prepared a report which concluded that any nickel mining in Voronezh would have “seriously negative ecological and social consequences.” They added that the region should develop only as an agricultural and touristic center.

            On June 14, a week before the recent violence, documents about “serious social tension” in the region were given to Russian Vice Prime Minister A.V. Dvorkovich, and the issue was then raised on June 18 with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev when he visited Irkutsk (http://savekhoper.ru/?page_id=1319).

            But instead of taking the objections of the residents of Voronezh seriously, Russian officials dug in on behalf of the businesses that want to start mining in the area.  A day before the most recent protest, a Voronezh court rejected an appeal for a referendum on mining. As a result, the local population appears to have felt they had no alternative by to act as they did.

No comments:

Post a Comment