by Sergei Blagov
Kremlin says it is dissolving Russia's environmental protection agency in an effort to cut costs and combat bureaucracy, but Russian ecologists and some legislators say it is a sign that the nation is drifting further away from the civilized world.
Last month the government announced that the duties of the State Committee for Environmental Protection, which was responsible for monitoring the environment, and the Federal Forestry Service, will be transferred to the Natural Resources Ministry.
Critics of the move say that transferring the agencies' jurisdiction to the Natural Resources Ministry, which helps businesses exploit the environment, is ludicrous.
On May 23, more than 50 Russian environmental groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) signed a letter to Pres. Vladamir Putin protesting the dissolution of the environmental agency and arguing that it violates Russian law to empower the very same government body to exploit and protect natural resources.
Minister of Natural Resources Boris Yatskevich told IPS that his ministry's staff is underpaid and in no position to provide adequate natural resources management.
"Russia, with its immense pollution woes, needs to prioritize environmental issues, but the current government thinks otherwise," says Viktor Danilov-Danilian, chairperson of the soon-to-be-defunct environmental protection agency.
Danilov-Danilian dismissed claims that his agency is being abolished in an attempt to improve efficiency or cut costs. He argues that the agency, which oversaw 250,000 enterprises, was swamped with work, discovering 300,000 violations in 1999 alone.
Shutting down the environmental watchdog would not save much money anyway, he added, since Russia already spends very little on environmental protection.
government has chosen to put economic growth ahead of the environment even though some 14 percent of Russia's territory --home to 50 million people, one-third of the total population -- is viewed as ecologically at risk, he says.
The Kremlin has not yet responded to the growing chorus of protests, said Yevgeny Usov, a spokesperson for Greenpeace Russia.
Although Moscow promised the international community that it would allocate at least three percent of its gross domestic product to environmental protection, actual spending was about 0.01 percent, according to Danilov-Danilian.
Of all the changes to governmental agencies ordered by Pres. Putin, the abolition of the State Committee for the Environmental Protection and its transfer to the Natural Resources Ministry could prove to be the most controversial.
Usov predicted that Russia would find itself under increasing international pressure, as other countries do not want a ticking ecological time bomb as a neighbor.
NGOs charge that Russia's environmental watchdog was sunk by powerful lobbying groups, including big oil companies, and that the consequences could be disastrous.
For instance, although Russian law forbids the importing of radioactive waste or nuclear materials from other countries for long-term storage or burial, Russia's Nuclear Power Ministry, Minatom, has offered to reprocess $10-$12 billion worth of nuclear waste from around the world at its Chelyabinsk plant.
Nuclear Power Minister Yevgeny Adamov has offered to take nuclear waste from Switzerland, Germany, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, according to Greenpeace. Storing other countries' nuclear waste in Russia is illegal, but Minatom has been trying to push through an amendment that will allow it.
For that purpose, Minatom has drafted a bill titled "On reprocessing and storage of nuclear fuel."
On November 18, 1999, Danilov-Danilian sent a letter to the government in which he referred to the bill as detrimental to "Russia's ecological security."
Minatom has been accused of conspiring with overseas nuclear power operators to earn billions of dollars by allowing them to dump their spent nuclear fuel in Russia, to the personal enrichment of a few.
Abolishing Russia's 202-year-old Forestry Service also drew criticism. The protection of Russian forests should be an ecological priority both at home and abroad, Danilov-Danilian told IPS.
Russia has more forested area than any other country on earth. In total, Russia's forests cover about 10 million square kilometers, or more than one-fifth of the world's forest cover, an area larger than the continental United States. Most of these forests, known as "taiga," are in Siberia and consist of pine and spruce.
Danilov-Danilian says the only hope lies in the slowness of Russia's bureaucratic machine, which needs at least three months to disband a state committee, giving some time to those fighting the abolition of the environmental agency.
However, the Kremlin's long record of ignoring public protests makes the reversal of the decree far from certain, if not impossible.
"The outcome is difficult to foresee, though we do hope that the reason will prevail," Greenpeace's Usov said.
June 5, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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