Staunton, January 28 – Moscow talks a lot about addressing environmental problems, adopted a national strategy, and has spent billions of rubles on environmental cleanup efforts. But it has not put a serious dent in the problem; and contaminated air, land and water is harming the health and well-being millions of Russians and driving down GDP by six percent annually.
Almost 20 million Russians currently live in cities with high levels of air pollution, according to officials; and as many as 40 percent of the population often drink water that does not meet health standards. Both of these threaten public health and the country’s demographic future (russian.eurasianet.org/россия-экологические-проблемы-не-находят-решения).
Perhaps even more serious as far as the Kremlin is concerned, experts say, is the fact that the country’s environmental problems are hampering economic growth, reducing GDP growth by four to six percent a year, effectively ensuring that unless Russia enters a new boom, its GDP figures will be negative or only slightly positive because of the environment.
More serious still, at least in prospect, is that environmental protests are spreading from a relatively small cadre of environmentalists to large portions of the population upset by the government’s decision to ship trash from Moscow to the regions without asking the latter’s approval.
Demonstrations in Moscow oblast have forced the government to go slow with its trash disposal plans there, and protests across the Russian north appear to be having the same consequence. If the situation deteriorates further and if it becomes clear to more people that Moscow can’t or won’t address it, these protests could become political.
That is what happened at the end of Soviet times, especially in the Baltic countries where environmental and historical preservation movements, at least nominally legal, grew into political movements that challenged Soviet rule and eventually helped to end the Soviet occupation of the three.
One of the closest observers of the beginning of this process in Estonia and subsequently a direct participant, Mari-Ann Kelam, has just given an interview to Region.Expert in which she outlines the ways in which “ecology can strongly influence politics.” It should be required reading by those in Moscow who aren’t dealing with this problem now (region.expert/mari-ann/).
Moscow’s plan to mine phosphates in Estonia in an environmentally sensitive area, “really stimulated demonstrations and acts of protest in Estonia,” the Estonian-American who now lives in Tallinn, says. It was far from the only issue but it was an important one because it was the kind of issue people could raise for a long time without getting in trouble.
There are certain parallels with the Estonian situation in the 1980s and Russia know concerning the environment. But there are important differences. Perhaps the most important is that Estonians directly attacked the system and its leadership for their problems while Russians so far have focused their criticism against local officials.
Moreover, given Russia’s size, it is far more difficult for activists to make contact with one another than it was in Estonia. That makes a truly national protest in Russia far more difficult than was the case in Estonia, but each protest can be a first step in that direction, something the Kremlin should remember.
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