The "ideology in Russia is that environmental protection is only for rich countries, and that when Russia is rich, it will be time to solve environmental problems," declared Aleksei Yablokov, President, Center for Russian Environmental Policy, Moscow at a 16 March 2005 seminar at the Kennan Institute. Yablokov was joined by D.J. Peterson, Senior Political Scientist, Rand Corporation, in discussing the environmental problems that Russia faces and how these problems can be addressed while promoting economic growth. Both speakers agreed that something can and should be done to address Russia's serious environmental challenges, but they expressed concern that protecting the environment will be difficult in the context of Russia's current political conditions.
Yablokov explained that improving environmental conditions was one of the major goals of the democratic movement in the USSR. However, he argued that instead of democracy and a better life, Russians now face more environmental problems than ever before, are experiencing decreasing life expectancy, and are confronted with a re-militarizing, authoritarian state. Many in government, and also in society, believe that Russia must grow its economy through the extraction of natural resources before worrying about environmental security. Yablokov warned that the "dirty economic growth" promoted by the Kremlin results in 300,000-350,000 deaths each year.
Russia's environmental problems include water and air pollution, radioactive contamination, pollution from its space program, industrial pollution, leaks from oil and gas pipelines, and declining biodiversity, Yablokov said. Like the Soviet government before it, he argued, the Russian government is attempting to prevent coverage of environmental issues in the media, and is harassing and sometimes jailing environmental activists. Yablokov announced that many of Russia's environmental organizations have decided to form a new Green Party to address environmental issues that the current government will not. He argued that it is imperative to demonstrate to Russian citizens the connection between health and the environment, and to fight for environmental human rights.
Peterson agreed that the Russian government is doing little to address environmental problems. He warned that the stifling of debate and restriction of information is leading to an erosion of the policymaking process in Russia. As a result, the Putin administration is struggling with reforms concerning social benefits, the military, privatization of land, and other pressing areas of concern, many of which will have a significant impact on the environment. All politicians want to promote economic development, continued Peterson, but without a thoughtful process in place, and without checks and balances, Russia's economic policy will be one of pursuing economic development at all costs.
Peterson observed that Russia as whole, buoyed by high oil prices, seems to be avoiding reform and thus isolating itself from the global mainstream. The result, he continued, is that "Russia is starving itself of what it says it wants, which is hi-tech, high value added, knowledge-based industries. And these are the industries that are specifically staying away and going somewhere else because of the investment climate." Another way in which Russia is isolating itself is its hostility to foreign ideas. Many people believe that Russia is somehow different and needs to follow different rules, according to Peterson. In contrast, government and industry in China appear more interested in adapting "best practices" from abroad, including those benefiting the environment, Peterson said.
Russian society as a whole is not very receptive to environmental concerns. Peterson noted that in America, the environmental movement arose in part out of an emotional patriotism to preserve national treasures and landmarks. In Russia, by contrast, environmentalists are often successfully portrayed as opponents to progress or traitors to the state.
Peterson contended that while Russia may have entered into the Kyoto Protocol as a cynical tactic to ease its entry into the WTO, its entry nevertheless presents an opportunity to encourage cleaner economic development in Russia. As the Russian economy restructures, older, less efficient enterprises are being restructured or closed. As other, more successful Russian companies grow, they invest in more efficient technologies. And as Russian companies grow more integrated into the global economy, whether through trade or foreign direct investment, they will increasingly be forced to meet global environmental standards while at the same time increase productivity to compete. Russia's membership in the Kyoto Protocol will be an important tool to encourage the Russian government and business community to embrace the changes that those new standards will require.
Peterson believes that media and NGOs need to continue their work in promoting environmental security. "Despite the fact that we've seen pressure on the media," Peterson said, "there are still opportunities to get the message out. You can still talk about the environment in many important ways." It is likewise important to continue international exchange of information on the environment, concluded Peterson, so that "when the political situation changes in Russia, when the regime changes, when there is a desire to see the environment as something that needs to be focused on, the analytical capacity and data will be there so Russia can move forward."