Russia Environmental Problems

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Russia - Environmental Problems

The quality of drinking water is a major concern. Poor water management standards have raised health concerns in many cities, and water safety also is doubtful in the countryside, where 59 percent of the population draws water from common wells affected by groundwater pollution. Unsanitary runoff from populated places and agricultural sites contributes heavily to pollution of sources that ultimately provide water for domestic use; the quality of drinking water declines noticeably during spring floods, when such runoff is heaviest. Rudimentary portable filters are not widely available. An estimated 8 percent of wastewater is fully treated prior to dumping in waterways; most water treatment facilities are obsolete, inefficient, and generally overwhelmed by the volume of material that now passes through them, but funding is not available to replace them.

In 1993 Russia's total investment in environmental preservation was about US$2.3 billion, less than 4 percent of the national budget category entitled "industrial construction," in which environmental expenditures are included. That figure was 20 percent less than the 1990 investment. The structure of environmental spending remained substantially the same as it was in 1980: some 58 percent went for protection of water resources, 24 percent for prevention of air pollution, 7 percent for forest management, and only 0.04 percent for nature preserves and species protection (see table 5, Appendix). In most subnational jurisdictions, water pollution receives the most investment because of uniformly serious water conditions.

Water quality in Lake Ladoga, Europe's largest freshwater lake, came to the attention of government authorities in the mid-1990s. Factories on the lake, which is just east of St. Petersburg, have discharged tons of heavy metals and other toxic substances into local rivers. The shores of Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega to its east have been storage sites for fertilizers, livestock waste, and chemicals as well as for radioactive military waste. When local rivers emanating from the lakes reach the Gulf of Finland, their chemical burden changes the oxygen balance in the gulf. Similar situations affect the Arctic Ocean, into which Siberian rivers flow after passing through numerous industrial and power-generating centers, and the Baltic Sea, into which large amounts of military waste and chemical weapons were discarded from Poland and the Baltic republics during the Soviet era.

Environmental Conditions

In the Soviet system, environmentally threatening incidents such as the bursting of an oil pipeline received little or no public notice, and remedial actions were slow or nonexistent. Government officials felt that natural resources were abundant enough to afford waste, that the land could easily absorb any level of pollution, and that stringent control measures were an unjustifiable hindrance to economic advancement. In the 1990s, after decades of such practices, the government categorized about 40 percent of Russia's territory (an area about three-quarters as large as the United States) as under high or moderately high ecological stress. Excluding areas of radiation contamination, fifty-six areas have been identified as environmentally degraded regions, ranging from full-fledged ecological disaster areas to moderately polluted areas.

In the 1990 elections for Russia's local legislative bodies (soviets) and the republic-level Congress of People's Deputies, virtually every candidate, whether democrat or communist, made the environment a major campaign issue, thus promoting the electorate's awareness that severe problems exist. In 1990 Yablokov was appointed to an influential position as environmental adviser to the president of Russia (a position he continued to hold in the Russian Federation after 1991), and powerful environmental commissions were formed in the local soviets of Moscow and other cities. In the early 1990s, such soviets blocked many large, environmentally dubious projects of the central government, such as the activation of the Northern Thermoelectric Center near Moscow, and of various local jurisdictions tied to national monopolies, such as the State Construction Committee (Goskomstroy) and the Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom).

In 1993 state enterprises and organizations paid 39 percent of environmental costs. As state budget deficits occurred in subsequent years, the amounts from those sources decreased, but the percentage did not because the only other funding sources were local budgets and private environmental foundations. Budgets of subnational jurisdictions often suffered the same deficits as the federal government, and private organizations contributed only 1.4 percent of total investments in 1993. Meanwhile, local economic conditions have combined with weak enforcement funding to promote corruption among local authorities and to encourage poaching, especially in the fishing industry.

Major Crises

Dangerous environmental conditions came to the attention of the public in the Soviet Union under the glasnost policy of the regime of Mikhail S. Gorbachev (in office 1985-91), which liberated the exchange of information in the late 1980s. The three situations that gripped public attention were the April 1986 nuclear explosion at the Chernobyl' Nuclear Power Station in Ukraine, the long-term and ongoing desiccation of the Aral Sea between Uzbekistan and Kazakstan, and the irradiation of northern Kazakstan by the Semipalatinsk (present-day Semey) nuclear testing site. The overall cost of rectifying these three disasters is staggering, dwarfing the cost of cleanups elsewhere, such as the superfund campaign to eliminate toxic waste sites in the United States. By the time the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, such conditions had become symbols of that system's disregard for the quality of the environment.

In recent years, officials have identified many of Russia's rivers as carriers of waterborne diseases, epidemics of which were especially frequent in 1995. In July 1995, Moscow city health officials reported an outbreak of cholera-causing bacteria in the Moscow River. Officials have warned of increasing outbreaks of sewage-related diseases--including cholera, salmonella, typhoid fever, dysentery, and viral hepatitis--in many other Russian rivers. Citizens have been instructed to boil all water before use. In some areas, clean water is so scarce that water is imported from other regions. The highest consumption of imported water is in the republics of Sakha (Yakutia) and Kalmykia, Kamchatka and Magadan oblasts in the Far East, and Stavropol' Territory.

Marine biologists report that only five species of fish remain in the Black Sea, which once was a highly diverse marine ecosystem with twenty-six species. Between 1985 and 1994, the total fish catch in the Black Sea dropped from 675,000 to 45,000 kilograms. According to environmentalists, the entire sea is in danger of "dying" because only about 10 percent of its near-surface volume contains enough oxygen to support life. Deoxygenation is caused primarily by large-scale infusions of hydrogen sulfide, which comes mainly from the Danube, Don, South Bug, and Dnepr rivers that flow into the sea from the north and the west. Large amounts of mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and oil have been identified as well. In 1992 the littoral states of Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine signed an agreement to take specific measures against pollution of the Black Sea and the tributary rivers that flow through their territory. Conflicting goals and positions among the states involved, however, have hindered environmental cooperation.

In 1994 about 22 percent of the world's forests and 50 percent of its coniferous forests were in Russia, covering an area larger than the continental United States. Of the 764 million hectares of forested area, 78 percent was in Siberia and the Far East. At that time, vast stands of Siberian forest remained untouched. Such broad expanses have an important role in the global carbon cycle and in biodiversity. In the 1990s, the atmosphere of economic stress and political decentralization has the potential to accelerate drastically Russia's rate of deforestation and land degradation, especially in remote areas. Environmentalists fear that timber sales will be used as a short-term stimulus to regional economies; already, Chinese, Mongolian, and North and South Korean companies have taken advantage of looser restrictions and the critical need for hard currency (see Glossary) to begin clear-cutting Siberian forests. Timber harvesting by Russian firms decreased dramatically in the 1990s, from 375 million cubic meters in 1989 to 110 million cubic meters in 1996.

In Russia an estimated 74 million hectares of agricultural land have been contaminated by industrial toxic agents, pesticides, and agricultural chemicals. Considerable land also is lost in the extraction of mineral resources. Unauthorized dumping of hazardous industrial, chemical, and household waste takes land out of production. Flooding is a problem near the Caspian Sea and in Stavropol' Territory, where the construction of reservoirs has removed land from use.

Inefficient lumbering procedures cause unnecessary loss of timber; as much as 40 percent of Russia's harvested trees never go to the mill, and unsystematic clear-cutting prevents productive regrowth. Forest management has improved gradually in the post-Soviet era. In 1993 the Supreme Soviet, then the lower house of Russia's parliament, passed the Principles of the Forest, national laws that include guidelines for management and protection. Because implementation of these laws has been quite slow, many regional jurisdictions have adopted their own management standards.

Soil and Forests

Russia devotes about 10 percent of its land to agriculture, but land quality is declining. Erosion carries away as much as 1.5 billion tons of topsoil every year (see Agriculture, ch. 6). In the past twenty-five years, Russia's arable land area has decreased by an estimated 33 million hectares, with much of that loss attributable to poor land management. Experts fear that agricultural land management may deteriorate further under Russia's new land privatization as individual farmers try to squeeze short-term profit from their new property. In the early 1990s, an estimated 50 percent of arable land needed remediation and improved management for agricultural productivity to improve. Russia's southern regions, especially the Republic of Kalmykia, are losing about 6,400 hectares of agricultural land yearly to desertification. To the east, desiccation of the Aral Sea and expansion of the Qizilqum Desert in Kazakstan have a climatic drying effect that exacerbates desertification in Russia to the north and west.

In 1991 Yeltsin signed Russia's first comprehensive environmental law, On Environmental Protection. Modeled after a similar Soviet law, it made many general statements about the environmental rights of citizens without setting any specific goals. The law also defined numerous environmental functions for every level of government as well as for citizens and nongovernmental organizations, and it specified environmental regulation of every aspect of society, from health resorts to electromagnetic radiation. The sheer inclusiveness of such provisions made practical enforcement impossible. The other major obstacle to enforcement has been the slow development of Russia's judiciary, which was only a rubber-stamp branch of government in the Soviet system and which totally lacked experience in the area of environmental law (as well as the general theory of Western-style jurisprudence) (see The Criminal Justice System, ch. 10). Before any enforcement could begin, the 1991 law stipulated that numerous other laws had to be passed. The same complex situation has existed at the regional and local government levels. In early 1995, the State Duma passed a law requiring environmental impact assessments for a variety of construction and development projects, including large-scale industrial development, large-scale use of natural resources, city planning, creation of new technology and materials, and modification of existing commercial facilities.

Most vehicles in Russia continue to burn leaded fuel. In the early 1990s, motor vehicles contributed about one-third of total hazardous emissions in urban and industrial areas. Throughout the Soviet period and into the 1990s, trucks were the greatest vehicular polluters because privately owned vehicles were relatively scarce. As Russia adopts the culture of the privately owned vehicle, however, it is likely that transportation will increase its share of total emissions.

The Soviet, now Russian, navy's disposal and accidental venting of radioactive materials pose particular problems. Beginning in 1965, twenty nuclear reactors, most with their fuel rods still inside, were dumped from nuclear submarines and an icebreaker into the Arctic Ocean north of Russia. In 1994 the Oslo-based Bellona Foundation estimated that radioactive dumping in the Kara Sea north of western Siberia and adjacent waters constituted two-thirds of all the radioactive materials that ever have entered the world's oceans. In 1996 Bellona identified fifty-two decommissioned Russian nuclear submarines that were scheduled for scrapping but were still afloat near Murmansk with nuclear fuel on board; a timetable for dismantling them has fallen far behind.

Water Quality

Soviet leaders took little action to protect the nation's inland bodies of water or surrounding oceans and seas from pollution, and Soviet planners gave low priority to risk-free treatment and transport of water. As a result, 75 percent of Russia's surface water is now polluted, 50 percent of all water is not potable according to quality standards established in 1992, and an estimated 30 percent of groundwater available for use is highly polluted. The most serious water pollution conditions relative to demand and availability of clean water are in the industrial regions of Krasnodar and Stavropol' territories north of the Caucasus, Rostov and Novosibirsk oblasts, the Republic of Chechnya, and the city of Moscow. In Krasnodar and Stavropol', inherent water shortages exacerbate the situation.

Radioactive Contamination

Beginning with glasnost in the mid-1980s and continuing with the establishment of an independent Russia in 1991, much disturbing information has become available about Soviet and Russian nuclear practices and mishaps. These disclosures have included deadly accidents on land and aboard naval vessels, a network of secret cities designed specifically for nuclear weapons production and material processing, detonation of nuclear blasts for "peaceful" purposes, and the dumping of nuclear waste at sea and its injection into subterranean cavities.

A crucial event was the 1992 appointment of Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister to replace Yegor Gaydar, head of Russia's Choice. Chernomyrdin, former head of the State Natural Gas Company (Gazprom), has made the reinvigoration of Russian industry, and especially the fuel industries, a top priority. A second important event was President Yeltsin's dismissal of the local soviets in his 1993 struggle to consolidate presidential power and curb the growth of regional autonomy. The local dumas that replaced the soviets have been much more solicitous of local economic ambitions.

The Caspian Sea is also beset with chemical pollution and the loss of indigenous species, and it now faces the danger that 1 million hectares of its coastline, including Russia's Volga River delta, will be flooded. According to a 1996 report, 300,000 hectares in Dagestan already had been inundated. By 1993 the average water level of the sea had risen by more than two meters. Scientists blame the rise on the 1977 Soviet damming of the Garabogaz Gulf on the Caspian coast of Turkmenistan. Previously, the waters of the gulf intermixed with those of the Caspian, acting as the main thermal regulator and volume stabilizer of the larger body. In 1996 the Russian government allocated US$38 million for Caspian Sea conservation, to be matched by US$34 million from local budgets.

In the parliamentary elections of 1995, the Kedr (Cedar) coalition (which also had presented a slate in the 1993 election) was the only group among forty-three parties calling itself environmental; however, the party was dominated by businesspeople rather than environmental activists. Kedr candidates received less than 1 percent of the vote and no seats in the new State Duma. Some nongovernmental groups have continued to have political impact, and in 1995 Yablokov hailed a new wave of the green movement. The annual Days of Defense Against Environmental Hazards, which began modestly in 1993, became a national phenomenon the next year and included a speech by President Yeltsin. Public organizations played a major role in establishing the All-Russian Congress for the Protection of Nature under the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources. The national congress is preceded each year by eighty-nine regional congresses, one in each of Russia's political subdivisions. In late 1993, the new Commission on Ecological Security went into operation under the Security Council, with the assignment of assessing the most serious environmental problems as they endanger national security (see The Security Council, ch. 8). Although it was formed with great fanfare, the commission received little funding in its first three years.

In 1994 the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources employed about 21,000 people. In addition, the official Russian environmental protection system included environmental agencies in each of the eighty-nine subnational jurisdictions and also several state committees responsible for the use of mineral, water, and forest resources. In 1993 some 65 percent of the ministry's expenditures went for protection of water quality and 26 percent for protection of air quality. However, the ministry's actions against major polluters remained infrequent despite the 1993 constitution's guarantee of the people's right to a clean environment, to receive information about environmental conditions, and to get compensation for damage to health and property that results from negative ecological conditions. In 1995 Danilov-Danil'yan reported that only twenty-two cases had been brought against alleged polluters in the previous year.

Each of Russia's natural zones has suffered degradation of specific kinds. In the tundra, the greatest damage stems from extraction and transportation of mineral resources by crude techniques. In delicate tundra habitats, oil spills, leaks in natural gas pipelines, and the flaring of natural gas destroy northern marshland ecosystems, which take many years to purify naturally. Also endangered are reindeer grazing lands, upon which indigenous peoples traditionally have depended for their livelihood. In the permafrost zones that constitute about 40 percent of Russia's territory, lower air, water, and ground temperatures slow natural self-cleansing processes that mitigate contamination in warmer regions, magnifying the impact of every spill and leak.

Russia is a signatory of most major international environmental treaties. Among them are the International Tropical Timber Agreement (1983), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES, 1973), the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982), and the Montreal Protocol controlling substances harmful to the ozone layer.

Pollution in the Gulf of Finland, the easternmost extension of the Baltic Sea, includes untreated sewage from St. Petersburg, where heavy metals and other chemical substances are not properly removed prior to dumping. In late 1995, St. Petersburg city officials signed an agreement with a French water purification company to process the city's drinking water; the Finns hope that such a move also will improve the overall quality of the city's effluent water.

Acid rain from European and Siberian industrial centers and from power generation plants has reduced the Siberian forests by an estimated 730,000 hectares. Hydroelectric dams on Siberian rivers raise significantly the temperature of air and water, destabilizing the growing conditions of adjacent forests. Because of the enormous oxygen production and carbon dioxide absorption of the Russian forests (a capacity estimated to be second only to that of the Amazon rain forest), removal of large sections of those forests would have a drastic effect on the quality of land in Russia and the quality of air over the entire world.

By the time of the parliamentary elections of 1993, however, the political atmosphere had changed. Most environmental activists either abstained from political activity or merged their single-issue efforts with coalitions that might exceed the 5 percent threshold needed for a party to gain representation in the State Duma. Neither strategy had political impact because environmental views were lost in the coalitions' agendas. Among the major parties, only the Yabloko coalition had a separate department for environmental issues. Another major reform-minded party, Russia's Choice, which gained seventy-six seats in 1993, advocated environmental protection through market reform; Russia's minister of environmental protection and natural resources, former communist functionary Viktor Danilov-Danil'yan, was a member of Russia's Choice. However, neither in the campaign nor after assuming office did Danilov-Danil'yan press the party's nominal program of tax stimulation for energy conservation and pollution control. In the 1995 legislative elections, Russia's Democratic Choice (the new name of Russia's Choice) declined dramatically, gaining only nine seats in the new State Duma, although Danilov-Danil'yan remained head of his ministry.

The forest-steppe and steppe regions are subjected to soil exhaustion, loss of humus, soil compacting, and erosion, creating an extremely serious ecological situation. The soil fertility of Russia's celebrated black-earth (chernozem--see Glossary) region has deteriorated significantly in the postwar period. Overgrazing is the main problem in the pasturage regions of the Russian steppe and has severely affected the Republic of Kalmykia in southwestern Russia and the region east of Lake Baikal. In Russia's limited semiarid and arid territories, poorly designed irrigation and drainage systems have caused salinization, pollution, and contamination of surface and underground water, but not to the degree that these problems exist in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakstan.

Politicians and government policy generally followed the same pattern as citizen concern in the early and mid-1990s. In 1988 the initial groundswell of environmental concern stimulated the Gorbachev government to form the State Committee for the Protection of Nature (Gosudarstvennyy komitet po okhrane prirody--Goskompriroda), an agency given broad responsibilities similar to those of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. In 1992 the Russian Federation used Goskompriroda as the model for a new Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, which received a similar mandate.

Air Quality

Although reductions in industrial production caused air quality indexes to improve somewhat in the 1990s, Russia's air still rates among the most polluted in the world. According to one estimate, only 15 percent of the urban population breathes air that is not harmful. Experts fear that a return to full industrial production will mean even more dangerous levels of air pollution given Russia's current inefficient pollution control technology. Of the 43.8 million tons of pollutants discharged into the open air in 1993, about 18,000 industrial enterprises generated an estimated 24.8 million tons. Vehicle emissions added 19 million tons.

Public enthusiasm for environmental improvement followed the same curve as enthusiasm for democratic and economic reform; by 1992 economic hardship began to wilt the zeal for reform, and the vast majority of Russians remained skeptical of political change throughout the early 1990s. As worsening economic conditions heightened short-term insecurity, issues such as environmental protection paled, especially in cases where the shutting of a polluting plant threatened the livelihood of a town or city.

Japan has been engaged in a long struggle to stop Russia's Pacific Fleet from dumping radioactive waste into the Sea of Japan (see Japan, ch. 8). In 1994 Russia complied with Japan's demand to cease dumping entirely; after a long series of negotiations, in January 1996 Russia and Japan agreed on construction of a floating nuclear waste recycling plant and expansion of an existing facility to process nuclear waste generated by the Pacific Fleet. The United States and Japan are to fund the first project, and the United States and Norway the second. In the mid-1990s, Russia still was seeking methods of storing and disposing of first-generation radioactive waste in many regions, including the European Arctic. Under these conditions, experts predict that the country will be hard-pressed to comply with the requirements of the arms reduction agreements for disposal of waste from thousands of nuclear weapons scheduled for destruction later in the 1990s (see Nuclear Arms Issues, ch. 9). On the eve of the Group of Seven (G-7; see Glossary) nuclear safety summit meeting in Moscow in April 1996, Aleksey Yablokov and the Bellona Foundation complained that continued operation of Chernobyl'-type reactors presented an unacceptable risk to the Russian public. The Western leaders at the G-7 meeting generally muted their criticism on the issue to avoid embarrassing President Boris N. Yeltsin during his presidential campaign. Yablokov announced the formation of a new lobby of Russian nongovernmental organizations for greater government disclosure on the issue.

In the early 1990s, Russia's Hydrometeorological Service, which monitors air quality, reported that 231 out of 292 cities exceeded maximum permissible concentrations (MPCs) for particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, or carbon monoxide. Pollution levels in eighty-six cities exceeded MPCs by a factor of ten. The most polluted cities are centers of heavy industry (ferrous and nonferrous metallurgy, petroleum refining, chemicals, and pulp production). Not surprisingly, the largest industrial cities head the list. In European Russia, these are Moscow and St. Petersburg; the Ural manufacturing centers of Yekaterinburg, Nizhniy Tagil, Magnitogorsk, and Ufa; and Astrakhan', Samara, and Volgograd on the lower Volga. In Asian Russia, the heaviest air pollution is in Omsk and Novokuznetsk in southwestern Siberia, Irkutsk on Lake Baikal, the Noril'sk industrial center in northwestern Siberia, and Khabarovsk in the Far East. Levels of airborne sulfur, nitrogen, and lead remain high.

Among the chemicals and contaminants dumped frequently and indiscriminately have been compounds containing heavy metals, phenols, pesticides, and pathogenic bacteria. Chemical pollution was dramatized when fires ignited spontaneously on the Iset' River in Sverdlovsk (present-day Yekaterinburg) in 1965 and on the Volga River in 1970. Russian agriculture, like industry subject to centralized control and quota fulfillment in the Soviet era, continues to cause severe water pollution by overuse and improper handling and storage of toxic chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. During the Soviet era, dioxin, a carcinogen, was used routinely as an agricultural insecticide, and it heavily tainted rural wells. In 1990 Soviet authorities declared that dioxin, which enters the body through drinking water, was the most serious health threat from pollution.

Water quality problems are most severe in European Russia, especially in the Volga Basin, where about 60 million people live. Of all water withdrawn from natural sources in Russia, 33 percent comes from the Volga. About half of that water returns to the Volga as polluted discharge, accounting for 37 percent of the total volume of such material generated in Russia. The Volga's water does not meet the norms for drinking water and is unsuitable for fish farming or irrigation. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, numerous government committees were formed to clean up the Volga. Few of the resulting restorative programs have been implemented, however, and the Volga remains under ecological stress.

Since 1990 Russian experts have added to the list the following less spectacular but equally threatening environmental crises: the Dnepropetrovsk-Donets and Kuznets coal-mining and metallurgical centers, which have severely polluted air and water and vast areas of decimated landscape; the Urals industrial region, a strip of manufacturing cities that follows the southern Urals from Perm' in the north to Magnitogorsk near the Kazak border (an area with severe air and water pollution as well as radioactive contamination near the city of Kyshtym); the Kola Peninsula in the far northwest, where nonferrous mining and metallurgical operations, centered on the region's nickel reserves, have created air pollution that drifts westward across northern Scandinavia; the Republic of Kalmykia, where faulty agricultural practices have produced soil erosion, desertification, and chemical contamination; and the Moscow area, which suffers from high levels of industrial and vehicular air pollution and improper disposal of low-level radioactive waste. The experts also named five areas of severe water pollution: the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Sea of Azov north of the Black Sea, the Volga River, and Lake Baikal.

In 1992 the Russian Federation's Committee on Fishing reported 994 cases in which bodies of water were "completely contaminated" by agricultural runoff. Runoff from fields results in fish kills and groundwater contamination. Among the largest river systems in European Russia, the Volga and Dnepr rivers suffer from acute eutrophication--depletion of dissolved oxygen by overnutrition of aquatic plant life--which distorts natural life cycles. Large-scale fish kills have occurred in the Kama, Kuban', North Dvina, Oka, and Ural rivers.

More than any other event, the Chernobyl' disaster prompted greater scrutiny and candor about Soviet nuclear programs. Although much of the contamination from Chernobyl' occurred in the now-independent countries of Ukraine and Belarus, the present-day Russian Federation also received significant fallout from the accident. Approximately 50,000 square kilometers of the then Russian Republic, particularly the oblasts of Bryansk, Orel, Kaluga, and Tula, were contaminated with cesium-137 (see table 3, Appendix). The total population of the nineteen oblasts and republics receiving fallout from Chernobyl' was 37 million in 1993.

Only in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a linkage identified between the increasingly poor state of human health and the destruction of ecosystems in Russia. When that linkage was established, a new word was coined to sum up the environmental record of the Soviet era--"ecocide."

Environmental problems

With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow and the Russian Federation escaped direct responsibility for some of the world's worst environmental devastation because many of the Soviet disaster sites were now in other countries. Since then, however, the gravity and complexity of threats to Russia's own environment have become clear. During the first years of transition and reform, Russia's response to those conditions was sporadic and often ineffectual.

In the taiga, or forest, zone, the overcutting of trees poses the greatest threat, particularly in northern European Russia, the Urals, and the Angara Basin in south-central Siberia. Uncontrolled mining operations constitute the second major source of damage in the taiga. In the broad-leafed forest zone, irrational land use has caused soil erosion on a huge scale. Urbanization and air and water pollution also are problems.

Aleksey Yablokov, head of the nongovernmental Center for Russian Environmental Policy, has estimated that Siberia is losing 16 million hectares of forest annually to cutting, pollution, and fires--an amount six times the official government estimate and higher than the rate of loss in the Amazon rain forests. Fires, which normally improve biodiversity and long-term stability, cause excessive damage because of poor fire control measures. Large tracts of Russian forest, most notably 136,000 hectares in the vicinity of Chernobyl', have suffered radioactive contamination, which also increases the likelihood of forest fires. Because forests cannot be decontaminated, the distribution of radioactive particles in the trees remains constant over many years.

The Response to Environmental Problems

In the half-decade that began with the Chernobyl' disaster and culminated in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, substantial changes took place in the public's attitudes toward environmental crises. The public engaged in unprecedented discussion about the dangers the state's environmental policies posed to public health. According to surveys, the public's main concerns were local problems having immediate impact, such as polluted water supplies, violation of public health regulations, and air pollution. Russians were much less interested in more general and fundamental issues such as loss of biodiversity, deforestation, and acid rain. In 1989 a national poll placed environmental pollution fifth among citizens' major concerns, but only one-third of respondents expressed their willingness to sacrifice economically to improve the situation. Nevertheless, a substantial green movement arose in the late 1980s. Fragmented by disagreement over politicization and national versus local agendas, parts of the movement branched into other areas of activism such as human rights and regional autonomy, and no single green party emerged.

Lake Baikal, a water resource of world importance located in south-central Siberia, long was the focal point of Soviet environmental efforts to end the pollution that the pulp and paper plants caused in the lake's watershed. A series of comprehensive Soviet and post-Soviet plans yielded limited success in protecting the lake's water and shoreline, which gradually have succumbed to chemical stresses. In 1995 the World Bank (see Glossary) and the European Union (EU--see Glossary) granted funds for cleaning up Lake Baikal, and in 1996 the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission announced United States plans to aid Russia in overhauling paper plants in the Baikal region (see The United States, ch. 8).

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