Thursday, October 29, 2020

Environmental Disasters Increasingly Frequent and Increasingly Dangerous for Moscow

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 27 – Being for clean water and clean air is something many analysts refer to as “a motherhood issue,” that is, as something it is hard for anyone to oppose at least openly. That means that protests against pollution more easily find public support and even the backing of officials.

            According to an investigation by Novyye izvestiya, only a few years ago, most Russians ignored this issue and considered pollution and the handling of trash as the price they would have to pay for economic development. They were especially given to such attitudes because concern about such things are local in character (

            But today, as a result of an increasing number of environmental disasters and greater coverage of them and local protests against them, ever more Russians don’t know what they should fear most: “metallurgical enterprises, oil fields, new gigantic trash dumps, the import of radioactive wastes from Europe, of even the consequences of the actions of the military.”

            They are beginning to connect the dots, recognizing that what hey had defined as local has an all-national or even international dimension, and officials first at the local level and increasingly at the federal one are calling for the adoption of all-Russia policies rather than agreeing to deal with each incident on a case-by-case basis.

            Novyye izvestiya for its part warns that “ecology is a powerful factor the present-day protest activity of the population” and cites the words of Moscow scholar Ekaterina Schulmann that environmental protests have been growing in number and interconnectedness over the last several years. 

            Because the number of likely flashpoints is likely to grow in the coming months and years, the paper says, protests are likely to break out in places that have had only a few on other issues in the past, including Chelyabinsk, Norilsk, the Kuzbass, and the Khanty-Mansiisk and Yamalo-Nenets autonomous districts and the Komi Republic.

            Indeed, some are even talking about the possible formation of a green party in Russia, although the barriers to those steps are high and unlikely to be lowered as long as Putin is in power  ( or having regions declare “ecological sovereignty.” But perhaps the most significant development may be the attitudes of officials and politicians.

            While they might like to ignore this issue given their relationships with business and the state, they find it difficult to avoid making comments when the situation becomes dire. That is what has happened in the wake of the Norilsk oil spill ( and

            That has two consequences with potentially long-range consequences. On the one hand, it keeps other officials from intervening against the protesters as early and harshly as they might otherwise do given that any crackdown will be unpopular not only in the regions but in the halls of power in Moscow. Such “restraint” gives the movements time to develop.

            And on the other, such official interventions against environmental pollution represent a split in the top elite, one that could open the way for others. What Moscow does not yet seem cognizant of is that environmental protests at the end of Soviet times often grew into something larger, in part because officials were unwilling to be seen as being against clean water and clean air.

            Indeed, the Russian government recently announced a program that will only feed into these two developments. Prime Minister Mikhail MIshustin wants to expand “ecological tourism within Russia.” Such a development will only broaden support for environmental protests (

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