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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Dealing With Disasters

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 30 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Both natural and man-made disasters from the communist past continue to cast a dark shadow on many post-Soviet states, imposing burdens that these countries lack the resources to overcome on their own.

Some of the resources these countries need are financial, but many others are political. And unless they receive both kinds of support, the tragedies of their pasts appear likely to generate new tragedies in the future.

All of these possibilities were highlighted Friday at the commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the 1988 earthquake in Armenia and in a report on the environmental damage that Soviet occupation inflicted on Estonia.

Ten years ago, a devastating earthquake struck Armenia, destroying dozens of villages and towns, killing more than 25,000 people, and attracting the attention of the world.

In a demonstration of his concern, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev immediately flew back from New York and, along with many other world leaders, promised to provide the money necessary to rebuild the shattered Armenian republic.

But all too quickly, the world turned to other problems, and the Armenians were largely left on their own. Offended during his visit to Yerevan by Armenian demands to discuss Karabakh and faced with problems at home, Gorbachev did not live up to his promises.

For a time, the international community did provide massive assistance, but even that has not allowed Armenia to recover fully from this natural disaster. And after dealing with the immediate problems, that community too turned to other tasks.

Indeed, one measure of how far this tragedy has receded in the consciousness of the world is that the only internationally-reported commemoration of the anniversary of tragedy took place at a relatively small meeting in Moscow.

As a result, this human tragedy has become to some extent a political one, profoundly affecting Armenia's ability to escape from the Soviet past or to make compromises that might resolve the Karabakh conflict.

On the same day, the Estonian environment ministry said that cleaning up the damage that the Soviet military inflicted on that country's farmland, forests, and waterways will cost at least $5 billion.

During Soviet occupation of that country, the Soviet military maintained more than 1500 sites, covering some two percent of Estonia's territory. And the Soviets showed little concern for the environment.

In the area around Paldiski alone -- a town some 50 kms West of Tallinn -- the Soviet and then Russian forces dumped thousands of tons of oil, spent armaments, decaying batteries and even nuclear waste.

Because of the nuclear dimension, several Western governments have provided assistance to clean up Paldiski. But elsewhere, the Estonians have generally been on their own, forced to try to cope with unprecedented levels of environmental degradation.

And Estonia is not rich enough to pay for a clean-up anytime soon: The estimated $5 billion needed is four times Estonia's current annual national budget. And its clean-up fund amounts to only $300,000 -- a tiny fraction of what's needed.

The Estonian government does not appear to expect to get much help from either Russia or the West. One government spokesman indicated that "it is not realistic" to expect that Tallinn would ever get any money from Moscow even if it asked.

And while the West, and especially the European Union, has provided some funds, they are far short of what Estonia would need to overcome this problem anytime soon.

Consequently, the Estonian authorities said in their report, they will deal with this problem themselves. But in the lengthy period that will take, the environmental disasters from the Soviet past will continue to affect that country in three ways.

First, the environmental damage will make economic development there that much more expensive, thus restricting the rate of growth in one of the most successful of the post-communist countries.

Second, this damage will continue to affect the health of people there through the contamination of the water supply and otherwise. And third, this damage -- all too visible to resident and visitor alike -- will have political consequences as well.

Precisely because this damage serves as a continuing reminder of what Soviet occupation meant, it will make it more not less difficult for Estonia to cooperate with the government of the Russian Federation.

In addition to Armenia and Estonia, many other post-Soviet states suffer from the same problems. And while such issues seldom receive much attention for very long, they can and do play a defining role in the political life of the entire region.