An Interview with Alexey Yablokov: The Politics of the Post-Soviet Environment
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Or more than a decade, Alexey Yablokov has sounded the alarm of environmental concern in his native Russia In January, Yablokov brought his message to the U-M community through a mini-course and public lecture inaugurating the joint Master’s program in Natural Resources and Environment and Russian and East European Studies.
In his public appearances Yablokov’s approach is direct, reciting a litany of East European environmental horrors. Outdated technologies like open-hearth steel-making and Chernobyl-style reactors have poisoned the air, soil, and water, compounded by misguided Soviet central planning attempts to use nuclear explosions to mine diamonds and change the course of rivers. Water-diversion projects have drained the Aral Sea, making the seabed a vast saline wasteland that poisons the surrounding farmland. Radioactive material has been carelessly disposed all over the country, from submarines sunk in the Kara Sea to waste disposal in Ismailovsky Park in Moscow. Without providing much scientific evidence, Yablokov describes the human effects of this legacy, from falling life expectancies to rising rates of congenital deformities and reproductive disorders.
A marine biologist by training, Yablokov gained prominence in the late 1980s when he courageously called attention to Soviet nuclear dumping. He became Boris Yeltsin’s Counselor for Ecology in 1991 as the Russian government attempted to distance itself from Soviet irresponsibility. President Yeltsin has since appointed Yablokov chair of the Russian National Security Council’s Interagency Commission for Ecological Security, which includes the Minister of Defense and the director of Russian intelligence.
Despite his official position and support from the Russian intelligentsia, Yablokov has been frustrated by the lack of official interest in addressing and reversing environmental degradation. Both in Russian and abroad, Yablokov’s mission centers on organizing public concern to pressure government and industry action. He recently founded the independent Center for Russian Environmental Policy in Moscow to gain a non-governmental platform to raise environmental awareness.
This presidential election year, long-term ecological concerns have taken a back seat to economic issues. “There is enormous interest in the ecology in Russia,” says U-M political scientist William Zimmerman, “but this support is highly diffuse and not politically effective. It might take another big event like the meltdown in Chernobyl to mobilize the electorate.”
Just as Yablokov arrived in Michigan early this year, the prospects for reform worsened back home as Boris Yeltsin sent soldiers to Chechnya and replaced many reformist aids and ministers with more traditional bureaucrats, attempting to appease the forces of populist reaction.
In a February interview with Paul Kobrak, an editor of The Journal, Alexey Yablokov discussed the difficulties of getting his environmental message heard. He also criticized the power of the Russian military and spoke of the complex legacy of Soviet control and secrecy.
PK: In the transition from centralized Soviet rule to independent rule by the different republics, what has become of environmental monitoring and the collection of data?
AY: In Soviet times we had no access to statistical data because it was secret. Now we have no access because the data is non-existent. Breaking the Soviet system was easy, but constructing a new system takes a long time.
PK: Do you have a strategy for how to produce the new system?
AY: What strategy? We need money.
PK: If Russian miners want to gain the government’s attention, they go on strike. The military has the power of the coup. What kind of economic or political power does the environmental lobby have in Russia?
AY: Zero Absolutely zero.
PK: How can it achieve some sort of leverage over the government?
AY: Formally, we have the Ministry of Environment with six or seven agencies—forestry, fisheries, soil, land, hydro-meteorological, water—that deal with the environment, together with my commission on environmental security. But these agencies are poorly funded, totaling less than half a percent of the federal budget. We also have a set of new federal laws which mandate a set of environmental programs. Formally, it looks excellent. But de facto, we have zero power. Laws exist, but sometimes the government does not have the power to implement them, and sometimes they don’t want to follow their own rules.
PK: How could you increase the de facto importance of environmental issues?
AY: Only through public pressure—there is no other way. Here’s a real example. Last year I was chairman of a governmental commission writing an environmental impact report on a high speed road between St. Petersburg and Moscow. I felt we could not approve the project as it was because it passed through a nature reserve, violating a law. We worked for four or five months, and at the end the 57 members split into 30 who opposed the road and 27 who supported it. Then the Minister of Environment received a half-secret order form the Chairman of Government, Mr. Chernomyrdin, telling us to approve this project in any case. The Minister, in spite of the lack of consensus, sent official letters to the government that this commission, headed by Mr. Yablokov, approved t his project. I responded with a letter denouncing the Environment Minister to Russia’s Attorney General. I sent one to Chernomyrdin too, telling him he has no right to pressure me or the Minister. I asked him to meet with me and discuss this problem but I never got an answer. This is the real situation of environmental law in Russia.
PK: Was this a political scandal in your country?
AY: In your country this would be a political scandal. But in my country it is normal practice. I am in a difficult position. I can resign from my post but I have no right to act against Chernomyrdin or against my President. So we act indirectly, through our non-governmental organization (The Center for Russian Environmental Policy). We held a press conference and just two weeks ago (January 1996), members of the organization chained themselves to the door of the Ministry of Environment. They hung slogans changing the name of the building from “Institute for Nature Protection” to the “Institute for Nature Degradation”. It got enormous public attention, and made “Scandal of the Week” on Central TV. But what was the result? Now all people know Chernomyrdin broke the law, all people know that Yablokov is in hot water—but what else? Nothing!
Ordinary people eon the street cannot create this pressure—we need organization, we need development of our civil society. In the U.S. you have hundreds of powerful environmental organizations—Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council—we have similar organizations with similar names, but only on paper. We need time.
PK: How do you promote such groups if starting from such a low level of organization?
AY: We have to decide which model to pursue—the U.S. model of independent groups pressuring political parties, or the West European model of Green political parties. One such party in Russia—KEDR—failed because it was organized and funded by the oil capitalists.
PK: Do you think there is sufficient environmental awareness in Russia to get people to organize?
AY: At the end of Perestroika, the only way to express your negative opinion of the existing system was through green issues. If you wrote nationalist or capitalist slogans you would go to jail. We had enormous public awareness. During the first free parliamentary elections in 1991, most candidates used environmental slogans. But this was an anti-communist movement, not real environmental awareness. The movement soon divided—some became nationalists, some fascists, some industrialists. In the end, we have only a few truly green organizations who work to change the environmental situation, not just the political situation.
PK: In this election year are candidates talking about the environment?
AY: In the recent parliamentary elections, not one party addressed environmental issues. Politics in Russia is extremely personal. Voters look only at the head of the party—Yeltsin, Yoblinsky, Zyuganov—not at their political platforms.
PK: What do you think of President Yeltsin’s position on the environment?
AY: The President as an individual has a positive attitude about the environment. But to discuss with the President I have to penetrate layers of bureaucracy. Bureaucrats are good people, but they each reflect the interest of some group—the military, industry, and so on—while the environment has no powerful group inside the government. I advised Yeltsin to recognize the Tenth Anniversary of Chernobyl in April, to do something sound and gain public attention. Chernobyl is an environmental problem, but t is also a huge psychological problem since millions of people inhabit radioactive territory. But all my proposals have been killed by bureaucrats before they get to the President.
PK: Are opposition parties challenging Yeltsin on the environment?
AY: I find more environmentally-oriented material in the communist newspapers. They present the devastation of nature as a product of the market economy, of western investment, and say that we had no such devastation under the communist regime. All of a sudden communists stand for the protection of natural resources from capitalist devastation! I’m afraid they may use this theme during the presidential elections.
PK: Do nationalist candidates like General Lebed present the environment as a national resource to be defended?
AY: The nationalists have no good plan for the protection of natural resources. They could use such political strategy, but they concentrate on other problems.
PK: In your public lecture in January you mentioned certain unsafe practices common during Soviet times, such as leaving nuclear waste out in the rain or dumping unneeded pesticides in the river instead of storing them away Why would people so casually choose to dump chemicals where people live downriver?
AY:It’s an attitude. During Soviet times we learned that somebody else is responsible for everything, not you personally, not the ordinary worker, but some director, some small master. Under Stalin 20 million people, basically all the active people in the society, went to the gulags. Our villages, our cities are full of people who are psychologically broken, so they act like puppets. To be free of the mood of Stalinism, we will need at least two generations—we have no silver bullet. In a Stalinist regime practically everything belongs to the Communist Party, to the state. You don’t own your own property. If the forest belongs to all people, then nobody is responsible.
PK: Doesn’t that mean everybody is responsible?
AY: Yes, of course, everybody is responsible. But that means that nobody is responsible. True responsibility connects strongly with property rights. For now, the situation is worse than under communism. The totalitarian system worked, and now there is no system working. The local and federal governments have no real power to enforce environmental regulations. Now, you have no totalitarian control but you do not yet have social responsibility. Many Russians who are new owners of property want to keep their money and their pollution under the table.
PK: During your visit to Michigan, you have frequently called attention to the Russian military’s threat to the environment Could you explain?
AY: Just yesterday, a military nuclear reactor started leaking on the shores of the Volga River. The military is sitting on top of many dangerous situations. But perhaps more important, the military gets an enormous share of the federal budget, money that must be dedicated to the environment. The Soviet government used to receive about $50 billion every year in oil, gas, and timber revenues. This was enough to give ordinary people a very low but stable standard of living, to feed a huge Party bureaucracy, and to support military industry. Eighty percent of our industry was military, and 40 million people were engaged directly or indirectly in this military economy. While agriculture is quite easy to turn to the market economy, the transformation of industry is much more difficult. Some people in this military industry, perhaps 25 percent, want to actively turn toward the competitive economy. But the bulk wait for the return of communism, when they will have the same amount of money as they had before—unlimited.
PK: How do you propose to turn Russia from defense industry to the defense of nature?
AY: I would like to use the military for environmental protection. The military is a strange combination—they have good discipline, the best brains, and a lot of technological know-how—but also high levels of secrecy. The military is not all “black”. I hope these military brains will help us overcome catastrophes like radioactive pollution—problems which they created! My commission has proposed a special environmental force inside the Minister of Defense. The public attitude towards the military is very dubious, especially after Chechnya. A lot of young people do not want to serve. If parliament supports us, maybe we can organize an “alternative service” in the military, without arms and directed towards combating the environmental problem. Then young people may agree to serve.
PK: In Guatemala, where I did fieldwork, the military ran the country until 1986. Now the civil war is over and the Guatemalan army wants to involve itself inroad-building and protecting the environment. They too want an alternative service within the military. But the democracy movement objects, preferring a smaller army. Why should the environment be militarized? Wouldn’t that just strengthen the power of the military to move against the fragile civilian government?
AY: In principle, you are right. But you have to keep in mind our history. We have such a huge environmental problem with so much radioactive pollution, mostly from the military. We have huge territories around military bases polluted by benzene and kerosene, down 100 meters. I am a politician. Policy is a field of compromise. If you do not have such a huge military, this question never arises. It’s quite a different situation than in Guatemala.
PK: Are there tensions between Russia and the other post-Soviet republics surrounding the environment?
AY: We have had arguments between Russia and Ukraine, usually concerning the Aral Sea, which was one of the richest fisheries in the world 50 years ago. Now after to collapse of the Soviet Union, with no central ruling body, each country pollutes this sea from its own side. So now we have a new inter-governmental commission.
PK: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, who is responsible for the clean-up of Chernobyl in Ukraine?
AY: Chernobyl was one of the immediate reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the meltdown at Chernobyl, Ukrainian public opinion was directed against the central Soviet government and against Moscow, which symbolized Russia. We have an agreement between Russia and Belarus about Chernobyl, but we have no agreement with Ukraine. It is strange. They say to Russia, “We don’t want to have an agreement with you. We want to work with the United States, with the Europeans. You created the problem, now we don’t want to deal with you.”