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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Russia and the Environment

Air Date: Week of

Russian environmental activists are closely watching an upcoming court ruling on whether to retry a prominent government whistleblower for espionage. As Mark Hertzgaard reports, hardline tactics by the Putin government are giving fuel to a burgeoning environmental movement in Russia.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. By September thirteenth, the Russian Supreme Court is expected to rule on a case that could make or break that nation's fledgling environmental movement. A high court will decide whether or not to allow the government to retry Alexandr Nikitin. Nikitin is the former submarine captain who made international headlines in 1996 by blowing the whistle on the Russian Navy's mishandling of its old nuclear subs. Nikitin was tried and acquitted by a Russian court, but now the government wants to try him again on the curious grounds that it violated his civil rights the first time around. As Living on Earth's Mark Hertsgaard reports, the government's prosecution of Nikitin may mark a turning point in the nation's environmental history.

HERTSGAARD: Alexandr Nikitin's troubles began when he revealed that the Russian Navy had been dumping old submarine reactors and spent fuel in the Barents Sea and Kola Peninsula for decades. The expose got Nikitin thrown in jail. In the first of many irregularities, he was charged with espionage on the basis of a law written months after he was imprisoned. Last December, his case finally reached the city court of St. Petersburg.

(A judge speaks)

HERTSGAARD: As the judge read the verdict, a smile spread across Nikitin's face and the courtroom erupted.


HERTSGAARD: It was an extraordinary decision. An environmentalist had defeated the federal security police, Russia's recast KGB. And when the Supreme Court upheld the ruling in April, it criticized the police for violating Nikitin's rights. Nikitin soon left for California to accept the Goldman Environmental Prize. He'd won the prize in 1997, but the Russian authorities hadn't allowed him to leave the country.

MAN: Now at last we are proud to present Alexandr Nikitin with the Goldman Environmental Prize.


HERTSGAARD: Nikitin still looks like a career military man, with close-cropped graying hair and a clipped, serious manner. But he does know how to tell a joke.

NIKITIN: [Speaks in Russian]

TRANSLATOR: I would like to apologize that I was late for the ceremony, exactly three years.

HERTSGAARD: But no one was laughing a few days later, when Russia's prosecutor general announced the government wanted to retry Nikitin. Officials at the prosecutor's office were unavailable to comment for this story. In any case, it's clear Nikitin has become a successful symbol of dissent to many Russians.

HAUGE: What we have shown through the Nikitin case is that if you fight, you are able to get results, even if your enemy is KGB.

HERTSGAARD: Frederick Hauge is the director of the Bologna Foundation, the environmental group based in Russia and Norway that published Nikitin's original expose. Hauge says Nikitin's court victories have been particularly inspiring to young Russians.

HAUGE: This gives young people a hope and also a weapon to use the legal system, which they have not been aware of before. This has ended up to be a very, very important symbol case.

HERTSGAARD: Hauge says young people are flocking to join environmental groups in Russia, often using e-mail to collaborate. And not a moment too soon. Russia is one of the most polluted countries on Earth. The outside world got its first glimpse in 1986, when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine suffered a catastrophic meltdown.

MAN: Readings of up to 100 times normal levels have been reported locally in eastern Sweden and Finland...

HERTSGAARD: Chernobyl released 100 times as much radiation as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs combined. Today, three million youngsters still need treatment for Chernobyl-related ailments. And air and especially water pollution are severe in much of Russia, and the impoverished economy doesn't help. Last month's submarine disaster illustrates the dangers of operating military hardware without sufficient funding. Many Russian industrial facilities are running the same risk. Svet Zabelin of the Socioecological Union is a leading environmentalist.

ZABELIN: The chance is for different accident, of course, is increasing. Because we have the same equipment as 20 years before. This is some kind of dangerous stability.

HERTSGAARD: But instead of increasing federal oversight, President Vladimir Putin abolished the State Committee for Environmental Protection in May. Acting by decree, Putin transferred the committee's responsibilities to the pro-development Ministry of Natural Resources. Putin, the former head of the State Police, is also overseeing a crackdown on green activists through tax audits and harassment like Nikitin's. Zabelin charges all this marks a return to the Soviet era, when ministries rubber-stamped their own environmental behavior.

ZABELIN: During the Soviet period, each ministry had an environmental department. This is not outside control. Now we are simply coming at the same situation. It's an absolutely Soviet solution.

HERTSGAARD: But there are signs of a popular backlash. Eighty-seven percent of Russians polled by the Interfax News Agency oppose abolition of the environmental protection agency, and a large coalition of environmental groups is organizing a national referendum to overturn Putin's decree. Activists claim to have collected 400,000 signatures, a fifth of what's needed to put the referendum on the ballot. David Gordon, an activist with the group Pacific Environment in Oakland, California, recently visited Russian environmentalists.

GORDON: Organizing the referendum has truly and finally united the environmental movement in Russia. I was just in the Russian Far East, where I attended dozens of meetings of activist groups. And at each meeting they were actively discussing how to best organize the referendum and collect the necessary signatures. This has become their primary issue.

HERTSGAARD: But will the referendum pass? Activist Zabelin fears the government will use the involvement of Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund to defeat it as a foreign plot. But Hauge says such pessimism underestimates Russians' environmental fervor.

HAUGE: I have seen the different local fights around in Russia, when they are trying to move nuclear wastes from Kola peninsula down to Chelyabinsk. It has been 10,000 people out in the streets in Chelyabinsk. But I think we will see the possibilities for a referendum on this issue during the next year.

HERTSGAARD: The referendum would also block the government's controversial plan to import nuclear waste. The Atomic Energy Minister, Yevgeny Adamov, says such imports could pay for scores of new nuclear power plants for Russia, as well as clean up sites like Lake Karachay near Chelyabinsk , where the Soviet Union built its bombs during the Cold War. Lake Karachay contains 120 million curies of radioactive waste and is perhaps the most polluted spot on Earth. Still, Alexandr Nikitin opposes Adamov's nuclear import plan.

NIKITIN: [Speaks in Russian]

TRANSLATOR: This is the source where Adamov will get funds to develop the nuclear industry. But it's like a snowball, always getting bigger. The more reactors he builds, the more waste there will be, and the more problems he will encounter.

HERTSGAARD: Nikitin points out Adamov and Putin need Washington's consent on this matter. Under the old Atoms for Peace law, the United States owns the nuclear waste Russia hopes to import from Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.

NIKITIN: [Speaks in Russian]

TRANSLATOR: I think our job is to influence not only the Russian side but also the American side, because without the concept of the Americans and the Europeans, it's impossible to import nuclear fuel or radioactive waste.

HERTSGAARD: Nikitin asked Washington lawmakers to block Russia's nuclear import plan during his visit in July. Days later, the Putin government announced its plan to retry him for espionage. Russia's Supreme Court will hear the case on September thirteenth, and the stakes are high. If the government is granted a retrial, it will distract Nikitin from the referendum fight and probably discourage ordinary Russians from joining the environmental cause themselves. A ruling in favor of Nikitin, however, would reinforce the message of earlier verdicts. In today's Russia, maybe you can fight the system and win. For Living on Earth, I'm Mark Hertsgaard.



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