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Russia Gets Hit For Green Talk, Dirty Walk

Russia Gets Hit For Green Talk, Dirty Walk

It must have come as no surprise to Russian Greenpeace activists to be arrested for just standing on Red Square. Their August 6th demonstration, in which 50 crosses with radiation symbols marked the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, was just one of many to fall afoul of Russian authorities.

The organization was denied permission to hold a meeting, and a few minutes after it began it was broken up by police. Most journalists present had film and tapes confiscated, under the pretext that all filming on Red Square had to be approved by the Kremlin commandant or the Presidential administration.

This heavy-handedness by the authorities is part of a long-standing tradition here of hostility to environmental consciousness, and goes a long way to explaining Greenpeace’s popularity in Russia, a nation with a built-in distrust of its rulers. In fact, what makes Greenpeace so relevant today in Russia is the absent tradition of environmental consciousness and activism. The organization’s commitment and aggressive tactics are geared toward maximum affect with a minimum of resources.

Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warriors are already something of a force in Russia. According to Dmitry Tolmatsky, coordinator of the nuclear energy campaign in Greenpeace Russia, his organization has 10,000 volunteer supporters. Some of them donate money, others just participate in events. In addition, there is a nationwide network of informers at nuclear and chemical facilities who keep Greenpeace well-briefed about local issues. In a random April 1995 survey of 800 Muscovites, Greenpeace found that over 80% considered the environment to be a top priority, half expressed faith that Greenpeace could help to promote environmental solutions, and 23.6% said that they would support Greenpeace financially.

But aside from having a solid core of supporters, Greenpeace seems to have captured the public imagination on a much broader scale. In fact, its reputation in Russia is such that 2×2, a commercial TV channel showing mainly pop videos and soap operas, provided the organization with broadcast time free of charge. Since then, its advertising campaign has taken off, and initial accusations of attention-seeking and empty sloganeering have been swept aside by overwhelming public approval. According to the survey, almost 70% of Muscovites have seen Greenpeace’s dramatic television clips, and over three-quarters of these expressed a positive reaction to them.

Greenpeace has managed to give a high profile not just to itself, however, but to a series of issues with an acute effect on Russia. They recently exposed a long-term scandal involving a French company, Union Mimiere, which produced chemical waste and sent it to Russia in the guise of cobalt and nickel scrap. About 1,000 tons of toxic substances were imported to Russia, containing 8-10% cadmium, 2-3% thallium, plus selenium, germanium and arsenic. Intoxication with these substances can cause intestinal colic, acute renal failure, serious dysfunction and even death.

Initially the toxic cargo was sent to the village of Svetly in Orenburg Region. However, workers refused to handle the toxic cargo and after research was carried out, the local authorities and customs officials decided to take the waste out of Russia altogether.

Another major priority for Moscow Greenpeace at the moment is the situation in Chechnya. While politicians and journalists alike lament the human suffering and the economic plight of the republic, the ecological situation is largely forgotten. Greenpeace Russia director Alexander Knorre is planning to send an expedition there when the threat of hostilities recedes. “After the end of fighting in Chechnya,” he believes, “Russia will get a republic with a completely wrecked economy and on top of that another ecological disaster area.”

So far, it is difficult to tell exactly how widespread the disaster is. There is a huge oil refinery and chemical plant in the capital Grozny, both of which were damaged in various stages of the war, causing massive pollution. Large depositories of chlorine, nitrogen and phenol have also become a source of real threat to the environment in Russia.

Eighty percent of all forests in Chechnya are tall beech forests. According to some sources, these very valuable trees were burned down by the Russian army in large numbers so that Chechen fighters could not wage a guerrilla war.

In recent years, Russia and the former Soviet republics have been specifically blamed for most of the ecological troubles of the human race. The most striking example was the leakage from the oil pipeline near Usinsk in northern Russia, which contaminated an entire region and whose clean-up operation is far from complete. The incident provoked unprecedented discussion throughout the world.

For several months ecological experts from many countries of the world, including representatives of Greenpeace, accused Russian industrialists of every imaginable sin. Knorre, however, believes that Western companies themselves should ensure the safety of Russian pipelines because the Russian oil was produced for them.

At the same time, in the opinion of key international experts, many ecological problems – have actually been settled and the global climate has even improved, but only by default. The industrial slump in Russia is so severe that dozens of major facilities have closed down.

In fact, when other factors are taken into consideration, western criticism of Russia’s ecological state begins to seem downright unfair. According to estimates by Greenpeace experts, Russia is the third ‘most popular’ country in the world to which chemical and radiation waste are brought from every part of the planet. 80 billion tons of all kinds of waste are located in Russia, and every year this figure increases by seven billion. Over the last year, various intermediaries have offered Russia 45 million tons of waste. According to data published by the Federal Security Service, 20,000 tons of waste were brought to Russia illegally. More than 50% of the attempts to bring waste to Russia were made by Germany, and over 80% of all waste is of German origin.

It’s understandable that many countries have discovered Russia’s vast potential as a dustbin for all kinds of the most unpleasant substances invented by man. The logic is that in a country where 8 million sq. km of land remains untouched by human hands, there is plenty of opportunity for surreptitious dumping.

And this may be why Russia needs activists like those at Greenpeace – to defend those areas that the often distracted and ever financially-stressed Russian government is unable to defend.

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