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

Gorbachev on the Environment

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth Political Observer Mark Hertsgaard interviews former president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev on issues such as Russia’s current environmental situation, globalism and the importance of environmental education.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In a much-anticipated ruling, Russia's Supreme Court has told government prosecutors they cannot reopen their espionage case against Alexander Nikitin. Nikitin is the former naval officer who drew world attention to the environmental threat posed by Russia's decaying nuclear submarine fleet in the Cola peninsula. Nikitin's acquittal was predicted last week by Mikhail Gorbachev. It was one of a number of environmental topics the former Soviet president discussed in a rare interview with Living on Earth. Gorbachev was in New York to address the United Nations Millennium Summit, and took the time to talk with our Political Observer, Mark Hertsgaard.

HERTSGAARD: Nine years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev is still a world leader with charisma to match.

(Milling people)

HERTSGAARD: Striding down a hotel corridor surrounded by a small, bustling entourage, it's Gorbachev and his aura of calm authority that commands one's attention. Dressed in a gray business suit, he looks healthy and fit as he enters the cramped room set up for our interview. A cushioned armchair awaits him, but he asks for a hard straight-backed chair instead, and sits down near his long-time interpreter, Pavel Polischenko .

POLISCHENKO: I think you could handle that...

HERTSGAARD: Gorbachev's new mission is saving the environment, a problem he calls the number one item on the agenda of the twenty-first century. So, he's formed the Green Cross International group to promote sustainable economics and political reforms, including adoption of his Earth Charter. Most important of all, he tells me, is environmental education, especially of the young.

GORBACHEV: My experience with the environment began many years ago when I was a small child. I grew up in a family of peasants, and it was there that I saw the way that our wheat fields suffered as a result of dust storms, erosion, water erosion, wind erosion. I saw the effect of that on life, on human life. And then when I began to work in the Central Committee, I saw a really terrible picture of the consequences of what we did for the environment. And a sudden view of nature to shape for me, which was very important. And then I had to go through many other experiences, including Chernobyl. Today, in Russia, which is going through a very difficult transformation, suddenly the possibility of environmental action is rather limited. Nevertheless, there is an environmental movement in Russia. There is a change in the people's minds as regards the environment. During Perestroika, for the first time when people had a chance to speak out in a democratic situation, in a democratic setting, the first thing they did was to speak for the environment. The massive rallies, the most massive rallies, were for the environment.

HERTSGAARD: You mention the situation in Russia. Let's talk about that. What is your own view about the environmental situation in Russia today, and what can Western countries do to help improve the situation?

GORBACHEV: In Russia, with its vast open spaces, with its tremendous natural wealth, rivers and forests, for many years we had the philosophy of unlimited resources. Everything is so plentiful, people said. Now we understand that everything is in short supply. Right now, air pollution in Russia has decreased because almost half of our industry is at a standstill, has been virtually destroyed. That's the only possibly positive result of what happened in recent years to our economy. Russia needs help to really do away with those dangerous hot spots of environmental danger. Russia needs to clean up the Cola Peninsula and that area where there are old nuclear submarines. I had a meeting with another minister, the Minister of Atomic Industry, Adamov, who is looking forward to working with other countries, including Nordic countries, on this.

HERTSGAARD: Mr. Putin recently abolished Russia's state Committee for Environmental Protection. His government has been harassing environmental activists. The government also wants to change the laws of Russia to allow the importation of nuclear waste. All of this suggests that Mr. Putin believes that there is no serious environmental crisis in Russia today.

GORBACHEV: I think that it was indeed a mistake that he made. They wanted to reduce the bureaucratic organizations. They wanted to merge certain government agencies. And one mistake that they made was that they incorporated the Committee on the Environment in another department. They merged it with the department, the Ministry of Natural Resources. One might think that there is something, some logic to that decision. I don't think so. I believe that that decision will be reconsidered. I believe it will be changed. I believe that people, not just environmentalists, but people are concerned about this. But this mistake was not made because Putin ignores the environment, because he doesn't understand that Russia is facing an environmental problem. This is not that Putin wants to fight against environmentalists, no. That would not be a serious thing to say.

HERTSGAARD: You say that this decision will be changed. Will it be changed because of the referendum that those activists are organizing to overturn the decree?

GORBACHEV: No, I don't think it'll take a referendum.

HERTSGAARD: Putin will do it himself.

GORBACHEV: I think it is basically a specific question, a specific issue to be addressed. To be reconsidered. The problem can be solved. And I think that the environmentalists, they have a right to demand a referendum, to demand a referendum. But again, I think it's just a form of pressure on the government that needs to be applied. It's all quite legal. I, on this issue, I am on the side of the environmentalists.

HERTSGAARD: In the 1980’s, with nuclear weapons, you acted very imaginatively, and made unilateral concessions. Is there something as imaginative as your unilateral moves on disarmament, that could be transferred to the environmental field?

GORBACHEV: Well, I think that this is a set of global steps that needs to be taken. And I believe that global institutions must play a role here, particularly the United Nations. Number one, we need to do a lot of work to implement the Earth Charter, on the basis of the Earth Charter, without shaping world public opinion. We will not be able to make sure that in every household in every city in every locality, people really remember and act on the environmental imperative. The environment just cannot be set aside. And I think that the environmental problem will be the number one item on the agenda of the twenty-first century. If we just hope that we'll make it somehow, that nature will cope with these problems, somehow, through its own resources, etc., etc., and we can just do what we've been doing, we could face an even graver situation.

HERTSGAARD: Gorbachev had been in meetings all day and his voice was tired. While an aide fetched tea and throat lozenges, he joked about being stuck in a windowless room with a dozen people for the past hour.

GORBACHEV: Yeah, the environment here is getting worse, I must say. (Laughter)

HERTSGAARD: In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev dismantled Soviet totalitarianism, helped end the Cold War, and reversed the nuclear arms race. Today, changing humanity's environmental trajectory is an equally imposing challenge, but Gorbachev seems unruffled. He ended our interview by explaining why.

GORBACHEV: As always, I am optimistic.

HERTSGAARD: For Living on Earth, I'm Mark Hertsgaard.



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