Russia fears Putin's economy could cost the earth

June 2, 2000

Putin has caused outrage by axeing the environmental protection agency to save money. Nick Holdsworth writes.

Russian scientists and ecologists have reacted angrily to President Putin's decision to scrap the country's environmental protection agency in a cost-cutting measure.

A presidential decree dissolving the State Committee for Environmental Protection and transferring its duties to the Natural Resources Ministry has sparked a rare degree of unanimity in the academic and green communities.

Just days before the decision, Putin promised researchers and academics "government support in every way" in a speech before the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

Greenpeace Russia rallied to the agency's defence, labelling Putin's decision to axe it "a mistake" and accusing the Natural Resources Ministry of a record of supporting "illegal and environmentally hazardous projects".

Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, the environmental agency's embattled head - who attracted the ire of Russian greens after an ill-considered attempt last year to import spent nuclear fuel for profitable long-term storage - called Putin's decision "absurd".

"Authorising the Natural Resources Ministry to deal with ecological problems is like asking an alcoholic what the price of vodka should be," he said.

Environmentalists across the country criticised the move, accusing the Natural Resources Ministry of aiding pollution through allowing companies to freely exploit oil, gas, gold, timber and other natural resources.

In the Siberian city of Irkutsk, Jennie Sutton, a British woman who runs pressure group Baikal Environmental Wave, said the decision could be disastrous for Russia's environment. Irkutsk is the nearest town to Lake Baikal, the world's largest and purest fresh-water reserve, which is under increasing threat from pollution.

Ms Sutton said: "The state committee for the environment should be strengthened. Our local branch is weak and completely under the thumb of the regional administration - but at least it gives us someone to appeal to."

Members of her group have until now had the right to draw up "acts" of environmental law-breaking on behalf of the local Goskompriroda (State Environment Committee), but Putin's action could put an end to that, she said.

"When we suggested at a gathering of Goskom staff and other state officials, scientists and environmentalists that they join us in making an appeal to keep the committee, the officials turned it down, saying the changes were for the good. We interpret this as kow-towing to the new president," Ms Sutton said.

Veteran ecologist Alexei Yablokov, president of the Russian Centre for Ecological Policy, said environmentalists spent two decades campaigning to prove that it was impossible to combine the exploitation of the environment with measures to guard against pollution. He added that it was "vital" to have a fully independent environmental agency.

Gennady Yagodin, once a Soviet education minister and now rector and dean of the school of environmental studies at Moscow's International University, said: "It is a great mistake to abolish the committee. It may not affect us much, even though we train teachers of environmental studies, but what matters is the country and nature."

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